Clinton & Me: A Real Life Political Comedy
By Mark Katz (Miramax, $22)
Mark Katz's uncle had just handed Michael Dukakis a perfect straight line—"You're sure you're not Jewish?"—and Katz couldn't believe the candidate failed to tee off with any of the half-dozen quips that immediately popped into his own head ("I'll have my staff look into it," "No, I am Greek . . . the OTHER short, swarthy, big-nosed people," etc.). Out of that brief meeting came the first glimmerings of Katz's future vocation: presidential joke writer.
Katz chronicles his rise—from gofer in the 1988 Dukakis presidential campaign to humor speechwriter for the Clinton administration—with a winning honesty, if sometimes lagging charm. He is disarmingly up front about his frail ego, shamelessly reveling in his smallest triumphs (like the time he got to hug Bono), and describing in unstinting detail his every humiliation and petty rivalry (notably with Al Franken).
Though Katz's dorkiness does begin to grate after a few hundred pages ("Brain: You are talking to the President! Repeat: You are talking to the President!"), it doesn't really matter. The anecdotes—surely the most important part of any political memoir—are so damn good they had me reading this thing even in the bathroom, book in one hand, dick in the other. Here's Clinton, awestruck by a stray detail of ordinary life outside the cloisters of the presidency: "I didn't know that—they have chili at Wendy's now? Is it good?" Then there's Al Gore at home in New Age comfort slacks and Teva-style sandals, obsessing about the comedic value of various names in a joke he's practicing (Bob and Duane? Stan and Duane? Ted and Duane?).
Katz describes the familiar arc of the Clinton follower, from infatuation to disappointment (mixed with infatuation), but nothing he says, even in the depths of Blowjobgate (when he was the only humorist in the world unable to write Monica Lewinsky jokes), cuts so deep that he might jeopardize his trustworthiness in the eyes of possible future Democratic employers. Here's hoping he gets another shot to crank out one-liners in the near future; his material would sound great in the mouth of President Edwards. DAVID STOESZ
Mark Katz will appear at University Bookstore, 7 p.m. Mon., March 8.
The Red Passport
By Katherine Shonk (Farrar, Straus, Giroux $22)
A few hours after I heard about a recent explosion on the Moscow metro, I settled into a seat on the bus and found that the story I was about to read, "Kitchen Friends," concerned a bombed trolleybus in Moscow. I'd been enjoying Katherine Shonk's stories until that point, and upon finding the strange correlation between fact and fiction, I figured I must be in for something good. As it turned out, the next story almost ruined Passport for me. Its cloying, moralistic, and ultimately dull tone, plus its insistent, do-gooder heroine, are in sharp contrast to Shonk's more nuanced characters and plots in this debut collection. At her best,Shonk slices thin slivers of post-Communist life in Russia and shows them to us with careful restraint. When her stories work, they do so beautifully, ending as they begin, unceremoniously but with quiet impact.
In "My Mother's Garden," a grandmother and granddaughter are kept apart because the grandmother refuses to leave her home in the Chernobyl disaster zone and the young girl is not allowed to visit her there. With Yulia, the mother caught between generations, Shonk portrays a life doubly in limbo: Just as she must somehow sustain a connection between her mother and her daughter, Yulia struggles to connect her former life in her contaminated hometown with her new existence in the city.
Shonk joins a multitude of sensitive young American writers who've lately mined their experiences traveling in the former Soviet states. Since time spent abroad almost always seems romantic—and looking back on it even more so—these kinds of stories tend to take a rosy-hued view of the natives, and Shonk's are no exception. And yet Shonk, perhaps in an effort to balance her stories, also treats her Western characters with the same kid gloves. Certain recurring figures tend to reinforce an unfortunately, if inadvertently, patronizing tone to Passport: the older Soviet-era man whose mind has seemingly been emptied by his country's upheaval; the American man who's well-placed, all-knowing, and ever-helpful. Yet as Shonk demonstrates in "Kitchen Friends"—and as is also true in real life—such "helpfulness" can often prove downright dangerous. LAURA CASSIDY
See Through: Stories
By Nelly Reifler (Simon & Schuster, $21)
Cross-dressing critters. In one of the 14 stories in this short-story collection, a misfit squirrel and a liberated sparrow bond over their shared desire to look and act like rats. In another, a literature major spends a summer working behind the counter at her uncle's kiddie porn shop. All of Nelly Reifler's stories have in common a bent toward the absurd; she has a morbid sense of humor that makes her work simultaneously shocking, funny, sad, and, somehow, familiar. More than anything, Reifler seems to have an unflinching grasp on humanity, however much it's veiled and distorted here.
Where some readers might react with disgust at the perversities on display, Reifler adopts a tone of pseudo-sympathetic scrutiny, like a slightly nutty scientist. In "Rascal," a voyeuristic, lonely young man lives vicariously through the lives he observes on his bicycle tours through public campgrounds. When he threatens a young woman with a knife, the moment is less shocking than insightful: Knowing nothing about love, he suddenly apprehends what she means to her fiancé.
Most of Reifler's characters are loners tending toward a kind of self-willed otherness. This reflects her offbeat voice, at once intimate and emotionally removed. In "The River and Una," a wild teenage beauty would rather be dead than confined by her mother's rules. In "Teeny," a preteen given a temporary kitten-sitting job realizes she'd rather be cared for than be a caretaker, to remain a child.
Remarkably, considering Reifler's command of style and strength of voice, Through is her first published collection—though she's a produced playwright and former actress. While some of thesestories seem underdeveloped, like one- acts or monologues developed for the stage, that deficit is outweighed by the author's unique sensibility for the junction between ridiculousness and reality. KATIE MILLBAUER
Swerve: Reckless Observations of a Postmodern Girl
By Aisha Tyler (Dutton, $21.95)
The former host of the E! Channel's Talk Soup is suddenly getting all postmodern—even if she doesn't know what that means. Aisha Tyler is nothing if not confident, which her first book certainly reflects. A self-help guide of sorts for young women, Swerve is very funny, quite witty, and thoroughly modern —sorry, make that postmodern, if theauthor insists. It's also shallow, breezy, and very scattered, which is perhaps how Tyler, once a regular on Friends, understands the term.
Although this essay collection sounds more like a cell phone conversation with a friend (one prone to frequent interruptions of service), Tyler does raise a few substantive topics—weight, dating, and marriage among them. Mainly, however, she confines her advice to pop culture, personal hygiene, light beer, and karaoke (the latter allows her one of those "There are two types of people in the world" kernels of wisdom).
The 34-year-old Tyler begins with a disclaimer that she doesn't have enough to say in order to write her memoirs. As evidenced by Swerve, she's right. Her quippy footnotes keep the reader engaged and amused, while a riff on Sun Tzu's The Art of War as it relates to dating never ends—it's more like The Art of Bore. The book's highly tangential structure may be recycled from comedy routines previously performed on The Tonight Show and elsewhere, but those routines are commonsensical enough in a wake-up-and-smell-the-coffee sort of way. (Her rules for preserving one's dignity and playing it cool in the face of humiliation could be useful for teens.) Tyler's smart (a graduate of Dartmouth, where I presently study), if no Seinfeld. But then Jerry Seinfeld never posed for the Maxim Hot 100, so I'd say she's got the more balanced résumé. ZANA BUGAIGHIS