Because I’m in a creative nonfiction MFA program right now, I’m taking extra care when reading others who write creative nonfiction – I just finished Jen Lancaster’s The Tao of Martha despite my boycott of her books because she supported Romney (though she proved to be a delightful public speaker when she did a reading at Chicago’s Book Cellar in Lincoln Square). I zipped through three of Joe Queenan’s books – One for the Books; Red Lobster, White Trash, and the Blue Lagoon: Joe Queenan’s America; and Balsamic Dreams: A Short but Self-Important History of the Baby Boomer Generation. I recently purchased Queenan Country: A Reluctant Anglophile’s Pilgrimage to the Mother Country and am waiting for Confessions of a Cineplex Heckler: Celluloid Tirades and Escapades.
The first book I got through was Red Lobster, White Trash, and the Blue Lagoon. In it, Queenan goes through some of the worst articles of pop culture – Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Cats, Michael Bolton, Burt Reynolds, Joan Collins, Barry Manilow… It reminded me a bit of Nathan Rabin’s trek through cinematic drek, My Year of Flops. Queenan takes a critical and jaundiced look at cultural products that are marketed to a mass audience, and sniffs dismissively at them.
Because Queenan is known for his snark, one shouldn’t be surprised at some of the sarcasm he levels at some of what he encounters – I enjoyed his take on Cats as well as his funny take on the literary career of Joan Collins. But I found myself cringing a bit when he goes after Liza Minnelli, Julie Andrews, and Raquel Welch – the three stars were performing on Broadway in Victor/Victoria. Andrews originated the role (from the Blake Edwards hit film), and was then replaced by Minnelli, who was then replaced by Welch. When slamming the performers he doesn’t really go after their talent or individual performances – instead, he finds fault with their age, weight, and physicality – he takes pot shots at the fact that neither woman is at her physical peak – he uses words like puffy to describe these ladies. I’m not saying Queenan should be a fan of either performer, but I found it troubling that he indulged in the kind of garden variety misogyny normally employed by bitchy old gay men or Joan Rivers.
But I can’t say I didn’t enjoy the book. And because I found his writing to be witty, I went forward and bought Balsamic Dreams. There is some context to getting a book about baby boomers. My partner and I have been battling over the accomplishments and sins of the baby boomer generation: I’m a fan, and he not so much. He finds fault at the baby boomers’ selling out – and their abandonment of the values we ascribe to that generation – anti-establishment, social justice, etc.
While aware of its limits, I also think that the baby boomer generation also brought about a lot of progress in the women’s rights movement, Civil Rights, and gay rights.
So with all this in mind, I turned to Queenan’s Balsamic Dreams a book that skewers the baby boomer. The title refers to the supposed poncey pretension of the baby boomer – which he finds abhorrent and dreadful. The book is basically a long screed against his own generation. I found it a bit exhausting to read such a long laundry list of offenses, but again, as with Red Lobster, White Trash, and the Blue Lagoon, Queenan is funny, even when he’s being obnoxious.
And because I’m a big reader, I was drawn into One for the Books – a work that goes over Queenan’s reading habits. Unlike the other books I’ve read so far, his literary voice in this book isn’t as barbed or whiskey sour. Instead, it’s like talking to a really well-read, if slightly grouchy classmate. I found some literary commonalities with the guy – we both enjoy Nordic Noir books, but not the Stieg Larsson series; we also like P.D. James – but he found Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird preachy, which pierced a deep wound in my heart because I loved that book.
But there was one passage that I found particularly compelling – his eulogy to a local bookstore he frequented. He doesn’t normally go for nostalgia – and he’s upfront about not mythologizing bookstores – a quirk I possess. But he does write sadly about the demise of a bookstore and how the demise hurt his small town. I thought back to the death of Borders. While Borders isn’t a small mom & pop, it still was pretty sad – though, I am hopeful that the small indies will have a fighting chance to survive, now that the literary Targets and Wal-marts are no longer as powerful as they once were.
I’ve just started reading Queenan Country – but haven’t gotten far enough in it to comment yet. So far it’s good – I like that he writes about his wife, as well – she appears in his other books – in One for the Books, he writes about how she falls back on Winston Churchill paraphernalia when she’s at a loss at what to get him for his birthday. She seems to be an appealing character in his life, so I’m looking forward to reading more about her – she’s English, after all, and he’s writing about England, and as a fellow Anglophile, I hope to take something from it.