David Rakoff's "Half Empty" consists of ten essays, which range from the bitingly sarcastic to the surprisingly poignant. The book begins with "The Bleak Shall Inherit," a few-holds-barred rant about what Mr. Rakoff sees as ubiquitous and unrepentant (and unjustifiable) optimism. "Isn't It Romantic?" skewers Rent and is probably both the best crafted and the funniest essay of the lot. In "A Capacity for Wonder," the author presents a mini-travelogue, taking us to the Disney Innoventions Dream House, Hollywood Boulevard, and Salt Lake City, Utah. The final two essays, "All the Time We Have" and "Another Shoe" are the most somber contributions, dealing as they do with the death of the author's therapist and the author's experience with cancer, respectively.
When I first started reading this book, one thing became apparent immediately: Mr. Rakoff can write, most of the time. Yes, he sometimes seems to go on, allowing sentences to continue far past the point at which they should have died had nature been allowed to take its course, but there was, for me, a clear sense of someone with great skill with words at work here. This is not, as William Tapply called it, invisible writing. Rather, the writing itself is part of the pleasure of the book. I am certain that I did not catch all the allusions, but I like writing that challenges, that sometimes goes beyond what most readers are able to absorb easily.
There are essays that are simply fascinating for their informativeness (such as "A Capacity for Wonder," which combines solid facts alongside the commentary) and those that are lots of fun (such as "The Satisfying Crunch of Dreams Underfoot," which deals with Mr. Rakoff's brief flirtation with film stardom in The First Wives Club and his one "deeply unkind" comment about a certain author. The book's final two essays are more somber and subdued, both in content and in style, and they make for a distinct departure from the prevalent tone throughout.
As a result, "Half Empty" is a series of essays grouped only by their creator and not by theme or tenor. I don't think every piece is necessarily a hit, but for people who like good writing and sometimes biting sarcasm, there almost certainly will be something here to please.
Reading David Rakoff's new collection of essays, "Half Empty" reminds me of this Czeslaw Milosz quote: "In a room where people unanimously maintain a conspiracy of silence, one word of truth sounds like a pistol shot." Rakoff is so good at pointing out the truth in a way that clobbers you over the head with the realization of how blind you've been.
Rakoff is my favorite contrarian. And I have a soft-spot for those who admit to being a dilettante - being a bit of one myself. I adore his cynical pessimism and his struggles with his dark nature, and boy do I love his wit! Right off the bat in the first essay, "The Bleak Shall Inherit", Rakoff paints a vivid picture of pre-9/11 society with the dot.com bubble millionaires and a "self-help" book that MIGHT expose the inefficacy of eternal optimism. Of course, things don't turn out. For Rakoff, they never do.
And much as I love the musical "Rent", thanks to Rakoff's, "Isn't it Romantic" deconstruction, I'll never be able to look at it/hear it quite the same again. I love the way he cuts to the heart of the cultural views of "art and artist" and right through the BS. Another essay is a hilarious explanation of the complicated relationship between Jews and pork.
The middle set-piece, "A Capacity for Wonder - Three Expeditions", has Rakoff striving to show that he isn't allergic to adventure by exploring three places of "wonder": First it's the Disney House of the Future - basically a trade-show with a creepy fake family. Rakoff exposes it as the "dog-pile of consumerism" it is. Next Rakoff walks the Hollywood Walk of Fame - Hollywood is easy pickings for a satirist but he brings us FRESH hypocrisies at which to marvel. And interestingly, the third "adventure" is Utah, specifically Salt Lake City, where he stays in a hotel that "Edward Hopper never felt bummed out enough to paint".
In "I Feel Dirty" we are treated to a singularly un-sexy look at the porn industry: prepare to cringe.
The last essay, "Another Shoe" will have you riveted. It's powerful and no way will I spoil it. Don't read it first; he put it last for a reason.
Rakoff lovers will not be disappointed in this set of essays, and new readers who discover his unique style of humor and truth will want to read his previous two collections. Mazel Tov, David.
on September 15, 2010
I thought this book was going to be an argument against the "positive thinking" movement, but I was pleasantly surprised by the contents. It's a series of autobiographical essays loosely based on the theme of disappointment, pessimism or failure. Rakoff tells varied life stories about going to see the "World of Tomorrow" house, his very short stint as a minor character in a chick flick, and his visit to a fetish ball, among other things. All of it is told with a biting, wry humor that really endeared himself to me. The end of the book is surprisingly moving and serious, but fits in with the overall theme and was satisfying in a poignant way.
Rakoff's writing style is very dense and may put some people off. He goes off on many tangents within his paragraphs, and I found myself having to re-read pages several times, but the payoff was worth it for me. I like to read prose that is not dumbed-down for me, that requires some effort to get to the heart of it, and Rakoff exemplifies this style. His work is slightly similar to the writer David Sedaris, but with a more detailed and finely-wrought hand rather than Sedaris's broad stroke.
Half Empty takes a satirical look at life's serious moments meshed with the not so serious moments from the perspective of David Rakoff. From first glance at the book cover and page after page of the contents of his narrative, this is indeed a journey of nonstop humor that flows with a stream of consciousness like no other, a stand-up comedy skit, or merely snapshots of Rakoff's memorable moments as told in little over 200 pages. But at the center of his personal quagmire, having to confront and deal with mortality and taking the light-hearted approach by first looking at all things from a negative point of view.
Rakoff's narrative reads like a long conversation with his audience, curious readers who have never read his previous works or long-time fans. Indeed, each chapter is a string of ten essays that look at the big picture of how negativity affects those who encounter it, including himself, that appear a little less myopic and narrows towards a microcosm of his own experiences of possibly why he wrote the book. And one word describes the series of references that he makes throughout his stories, popular culture, or he holding the television remote control that switches from everything that he has taken in from childhood to the present, from literature, gender issues, history and science, to philosophy that has been embedded within his memory; not intensely metaphysical but comprehensible for any reader to digest.
There is no doubt that Half Empty is a laugh a minute type of book. For readers who are familiar with other satirical writers, David Sedaris, Sarah Vowell, and Bill Bryson, there is plenty of kick in your pants commentary and underneath it all, Rakoff provides a unique form of contemplation with the old adage that laughter is the best medicine.
on October 31, 2010
David Rakoff's narrative character makes a light, refreshing entrance. He's sensitive, yet strengthened by an extensive literary education. He writes some excellent magazine-length articles. These are always better heard in his voice, so if you go for this book, I recommend the audio version. This book, like his others, is a collection of short pieces, and some of them left me glowing. His account of his work in publishing, promoting novelist Olivia Goldsmith, is especially satisfying. He lets us into the back office. He tells us what it's like to spend your days wishing you could write, while handling the writing of others. He looks ahead and sees only, "a highly unromantic future of rent paying. . ." This is Rakoff at his best.
Two flaws sour these sweet moments. First: nothing whatever ties these essays together. The book is clearly a collection of short work thrown together and bound. Second: Rakoff drives off the road even within the bounds of a short essay. He becomes a nervous guest at a party, who wants so badly to impress us that he can't stop talking.
Examples: Rakoff is a secular, non-practicing Jew. I know this sounds redundant, but he's only getting started. I like some of his observations on this topic, but he just can't stop writing about bacon, until I stood up and said, "Enough already!" Rakoff's literary references go haywire also. He's not content to include a reference to Oscar Wilde's "The Happy Prince," he must retell the entire story, nearly verbatim. When he returned to his main subject, I wondered where I was and whose words I was reading. Finally, there are some pieces that just reek of a contractual commitment to word-count and deadline. His piece on New York's attempt to host an Exotic Erotic Ball drags on like "War and Peace," but it may be summarized in two sentences: "The event was a complete failure," and "Reporting on it was beneath me."
A good book needs to be conceived and executed for its own sake, with a purpose in mind. Mr. Rakoff, you have great abilities. If you want to write a book, not just a collection, go do it. I'll be delighted to read it.
on October 1, 2010
This is a collection of essays, none of which are related to each other in any significant way. Topics range from Disneyland to Germany to the publishing business to "adult entertainment" trade shows to cancer survival, all generously interleaved with the author's personal memoirs and confessions. The essays are short; the book is short (225 pages in my copy) which makes for a quick read. Bite-size portions make it handy for reading on the go - or in the bathroom, etc, wherever time is limited and you don't want to get absorbed in a plot or have to remember details.
Like the publisher's blurb says, these essays focus mainly on the negative: low self-esteem, low expectations, worst-case scenarios, fear, humiliation, bad judgment, failure. David Rakoff makes no mystery of the fact that he is gay, Jewish, a worrywart, a phobic, a procrastinator, a nebbish. In spite of his awareness of his own bad judgment, he still chooses to write in the first person & share loads of personal information about himself. At least he's honest.
And that's the appeal of this book. It's honest. No attempt has been made to sugar-coat anything. Instead, here is encouragement to let drop the scales from one's eyes, and see things as they are. Instead of saying "I'm OK, You're OK," David Rakoff encourages us to recognize the truth that probably neither one of us is OK. Everybody can't be a winner. Somebody has to lose - and losing can actually be a valuable experience. There's a sardonic humor in observing the sad, pathetic side of modern life (especially the way Rakoff writes it) and I found myself not only agreeing, but chuckling - even occasionally guffawing - many times as I read this brief little book. It's extremely rare for me to laugh out loud at something I read.
on September 29, 2010
Listen. This isn't an easy read, a beach read or necessarily a page turner for the average bear. BUT it's really great. I laughed so hard in a few bits at such brilliant twists of phrase that I had to put the book down and collect myself. If you like the dry and the sardonic this is for you.
I love David Rakoff's work and have had this book preordered for a long time. I have both Fraud and Don't Get Too Comfortable as audio books and in print and have been jittery with anticipation for something else from the essayist. It's dark, sure. But I think that bodes well for the times. If you haven't noticed the ridiculous at every corner, take a ride with a practiced eye for picking up on details that the average miss.
There are no "good" chapters and "bad" as some folk have posted here. Some will appeal and some will appeal more. This is not formulaic writing and as such you may get tongue tied in a couple ramblers. And he's no simpleton with the word crafting. But grab a dictionary and enjoy. In a society filled with LOL and OMG, I find Rakoff's high minded humor at the absurd to be refreshing.
on January 3, 2011
I came into this book with high expectations (which the author probably would have warned against) because I really like the author. I have heard him in many different interviews and read a little bit of his work, and I have always found him to be very funny with a sharp wit. I have found him to be entertaining and a keen observer of modern life, but I found this book to be too much of an effort. It seemed that the author just worked too much to find the most clever thing to say, and this made the reading strained and unfocused.
The main problem was lack of focus. The author would start out with an interesting theme, but then veer off topic with anecdotes that would take up pages. Sometimes the anecdotes are interesting, but many times they seem to distract from the main theme. I would find myself becoming engrossed in particular sections only to see the author leave this to describe an early Madonna show in New York in which he decides this girl will never make it or something else that I just don't care about. While it is somewhat comical that he could miss the mark so bad, in the end I just dodn't care. After reading analogies of analogies and paragraphs that describe these analogies I would find myself unable to stay focused because when the book gets back on track I have forgot why I was interested to begin with.
The other problem is the all too perfect turns of phrases that are just right. There are too many of these which also distract from the main. It seems the author worked too hard to be clever and the work suffers for it. The book's flow is strained with these turns of phrases that just shouldn't be there. It isn't natural.
I wanted to hear what the author had to say; not so much how he chose to say it. I think my title says it all. I wanted to like this book, I really did, but in the end I was very disappointed. The author is still great, but this time his book is not.
I sometimes think that there was a special class of writers who wrote humorous essays, were openly gay men and had the initials D.S., such as Dan Savage and David Sedaris. It turns out this class has one more member, at least as far the first initial is concerned: David Rakoff, whose new book Half Empty embraces the joys of pessimism.
Many of the essays in Half Empty are autobiographical (maybe they all are, to some extent). They concern topics such as the play Rent, life on Hollywood Boulevard or in the heart of Mormon Utah or attending a porn covention. It all wraps up with Rakoff's coping with a potentially terminal illness (spoiler alert: he lives to write the book; kidding aside, this is actually a rather grim chapter).
This is an okay book, but if you're looking for laugh-out-loud humor, you may not find it. I didn't. Maybe it is appropriate that Rakoff doesn't truly fit in the "D.S." class of writers; while his book is relatively well-written, it is not quite at the level of a Savage or Sedaris.
on November 5, 2010
My first experience with David Rakoff was his guest appearance on Jon Stewart's The Daily Show to plug his new book, Half Empty. I found Rakoff to be quite funny, well-spoken and a joy to watch. Half Empty sounded wholly interesting; so I picked up a copy and wasted no time getting my Rakoff on.
Right out of the gate, flags went up; I was having difficulty understanding what I was reading. After finishing the first few pages, all the while wondering if I had finally fried my brain on bad fiction, I took a deep breath and went back to read it again. The first chapter was the proverbial beginning of the end.
Rakoff's wit and way with words translated onto the page like a stuffy butler with a sense of entitlement. The extensive use of his vast vocabulary only succeeded in drowning any point, meaning or humor in a sea of verbosity. This is not to say that Mr. Rakoff cannot write; quite the contrary, he can write and very well--he just refuses to stop.
Having said that, I can appreciate a book written above the fifth grade level, as well as one that provides reprieve from repetitive and formulaic authors. However, Rakoff's essays, with all their extravagant verbiage, read like William Shakespeare in a James Patterson world.
To be clear, I am not comparing the works of Shakespeare to Rakoff, just making an analogy--even though they both can be tedious and confusing. Although Mr. Rakoff may put off many readers due to his difficult-to-decipher prose and tangential paragraphs, much of the blame can be put on Mr. Patterson--Patterson (and those like him--yes, I mean you, John Grisham) has ruined millions of literary-palates and anything short of spoon-fed is too much effort.
Despite their disjointedness, once deciphered, the essays were witty, touching and poignant. In the end, I was glad I'd taken the time and endured Half Empty, if only to see how the other half writes.
For those of you frustrated by this book, don't be too hard on Mr. Rakoff, he still seems like a pretty affable guy. For those of you who breezed through Half Empty and have no idea of the difficulty about which I speak, may I suggest Useful Knowledge by Gertrude Stein.