[A Vine Review - Thanks, Amazon!]
Nathan Rabin may be a first-time author, but I know him well from reading his A.V. Club articles and the enormous discussion threads they spawn. His discursive, caustic, and quite funny writing style has a gift for transforming a long and pointless afternoon into something longer and just as pointless, only far more entertaining.
As a critic of today, Rabin's the kind of guy who can break anything down into popular entertainment references, so it almost makes sense that when he decided to tell the story of his life, he organized it into chapters referencing famous books, records, and films.
His stay as a boy in a mental institution? He's reminded of the book "Girl, Interrupted" - and careful to point out, not the later film adaptation.
Various relationships with girls are prompted with chapters spotlighting Rabin's takes on Rod Stewart and Jean-Luc Godard. Living in a hippie co-op in Madison, Wisconsin prompts a reference to "Freaks", the Tod Browning cult film. "My fellow co-opers were the stuff of Lou Reed songs," he explains.
Movies became for Rabin a channel of expression and a shelter from the storm: "Movies afforded the rewards of human interaction with none of the terrifying hazards of actual human contact," he writes. Real life has teeth, and Rabin often felt its bite.
I've seen this done before with songs alone, which do lend themselves to this kind of subjective treatment. Movies don't, and Rabin struggles to find the same connecting strands that come more easily from a song like "Maggie May". When Rabin uses "Apocalypse Now" as a basis for comparing a mildly domineering authority figure in Rabin's life to the terrifyingly unhinged Col. Kurtz from the film, it's a sign he's really pushing for significance.
More problematically, not every episode he writes about is as interesting to us as it is to him. There's three chapters alone on Rabin's brief, unsuccessful attempt at being a movie critic on TV, something he writes about with the minute, gory precision of the Starr Report.
When something does click, though, it often clicks hard, like his meeting the woman who gave birth to him, then left him alone for 20 years. When he meets her again, he finds her utterly unconcerned about the emotional damage she has left, and nutty enough for Rabin to realize he's grateful to have escaped her notice.
"Every Mother's Day I'm struck with an urge to send Biological Mother a card but I've yet to find one with a message like 'To a Mother Who's Disappointed Me in Every Conceivable Way.'"
"The Big Rewind" is hardly a disappointment of that order. It's structurally deficient, yes, but otherwise often engaging enough to read through quickly and wonder, if this was another A.V. Club posting, what the discussion thread would look like.
on July 13, 2009
What do El Pollo Loco, mental institutions, Siskel & Ebert, crazy moms in sweat pants, awesome music, long lists using commas instead of semicolons, and being Jewish have in common?
Nathan Rabin's The Big Rewind: A Memoir Brought to You by Pop Culture.
I should stop there, but I won't. I don't read a lot of autobiographies since they're usually stuffy "look at what an amazing person I turned out to be, one that you envy and now live vicariously through, since you just spent $30 to read about me" memoirs by people that I don't care about.
I don't care about Nathan Rabin, either -- actually, we're basically best friends now, just like Nathan and Topher Grace -- but this book made me laugh so hard a few times that I had to wipe tears from my cheeks. The guy's had an amazingly sad and entertaining life. He writes about it in a honest and humorously self-depreciating manner that makes it easy to relate to his life and his personal failures and accomplishments, but mostly his failures.
I enjoyed that he ties each chapter of his life (figuratively and literally) in with a song/album and/or a classic book or movie. Being the same age as the author, I found myself suddenly being sucked back to various parts of my youth and remembering exactly what it felt like to be alive when, for example, Nirvana was first blowing up and ending abruptly or watching MTV as NWA helped rap start to veer away from raps about gold chains and women to raps about guns, drugs, and women...and gold chains.
The honesty and bluntness of Nathan Rabin's autobiography impressed me incredibly. There were times when I blushed, because at points I felt like I was reading stories from my own embarrassing encounters with women and other social situations. Some of the things he decided to include about his personal life were both touching and largely a lot more information than I needed to know about a stranger; in a very sincere way it helped to make his story one that's easy to find solace in as a recovering geek/nerd/self-conscious person. I'm not sure if that's the result he wanted or not.
I honestly didn't want to put the book down, but sleep and various tasks involving the use of both my hands made that impossible. Buy it. Seriously.
I didn't know anything about Nathan Rabin prior to picking up this book, and although I enjoy The Onion, I hadn't read anything that he had written there. But I love pop-culture, and I nabbed this book up based on the words "The Onion" and "Pop-culture" from the book's description. That's how easily swayed I am.
Having finished this book, I can safely say that now I know oodles about Nathan Rabin. Most importantly: that Rabin is a witty, engaging and highly amusing story-teller (and that he rarely agrees with the Oscars). From the first page, this book had me hooked. Weaving a story from Rabin's turbulent youth, through the triumphant bonding with his father over Chipotle coupons and landing firmly in an Ebert and Roeper audition, (all tied up a with pop-culture touchstone bow) I couldn't put it down.
This book is dark, sarcastic and incredibly, intelligently funny. It is safe to say that anyone who enjoys The Onion, grew up with Nirvana or simply likes their humor dark, whether you know Nathan Rabin or not, will love this book.
on May 10, 2015
Nathan Rabin is one of the people who, for better or worse, has helped shape the way I view pop culture. First with his work at the Onion's AV Club (where he was the lead reviewer for many years) and later on with the Dissolve, Rabin spoke to me as someone whose judgment I could trust when it came to matters of great importance (like whether or not to see "Soul Plane," for instance).
"The Big Rewind: A Memoir Brought to you by Pop Culture," Rabin's first foray into memoir-writing, is a fantastic and funny (even when it's heartbreaking) look at Rabin's life and how pop culture saved him from an uncertain future. You might be thinking at this juncture "why would a critic write his or her memoir?" Much like Roger Ebert (whose "Life Itself," a wonderful book, served as the inspiration for the amazing documentary of the same name), Rabin has a life story worthy of retelling. Abandoned by his birth mother as a child, he was raised by a well-meaning but illness-stricken father, was committed to a group home in his teens after a suicide attempt, and has battled depression while trying to make his way in a world that stigmatizes the sufferer and doesn't understand the disease. Through it all, Rabin cites the examples of pop culture that either spoke directly to the period of his life he's addressing or else in retrospect seemed appropriate for the time that he's discussing in the chapter.
In many ways, this reminded me of Nick Hornby's "Songbook" project, in which the "High Fidelity" author talked about individual songs that he loved or had discovered and how they related to his life, all usually in a brief essay (in fact, I stole that premise myself for a time, to liven up my blog during a year or so when not a whole lot else was going on in my life). Rabin employs a similar tactic and uses the pop-culture objects that he cites (usually at the beginning) to set up the basis for the chapter itself. Some examples work better than others, but the overall effect is of a man looking at his life through the various prisms that pop culture has provided.
What I think is interesting to consider is that pop culture (usually derided as crass and materialistic, as it so often is) can also provide moments of transcendence and salvation from the everyday dull and boring lives we sometimes lead. I have always felt torn between pursuing my pop-culture obsessions (off the top of my head: Star Wars, British rock music from the Beatles onwards, the French New Wave, Lethem, Portis, punk rock, Talking Heads, and so on) and hiding them from the world, lest people think I'm not serious enough. But Rabin makes it okay for those of us who spend inordinate amounts of time talking about whether Boba Fett survived the Sarlacc or whether Van Halen was better with Roth or Hagar (for the record, yes Fett survived and Van Halen was best with Diamond David Lee).
It's a tenuous balance that Rabin must maintain between the giddy highs of pop-culture addiction and the sometimes crushing lows of real life (for instance, his chapter on reconnecting with his mother, nowhere near as "heartwarming" as it usually is when families are reunited on TV, is fantastic). He's lived through a lot in his life, and he airs much of it out with candor. Some of the things that happen to him are the very worst things that have ever happened to anyone in America, but he's survived it. "The Big Rewind" is the story of how he coped, and how pop culture (often times the boogey man for what's wrong with America) saved him. It's a great story.
on April 22, 2015
I was already familiar with Rabin, after reading his "Year of Flops," which I found thoroughly enjoyable. This book is just as entertaining, if not moreso, since it is much more autobiographical in nature.
Nathan Rabin guides the reader through the byways of his very rough childhood spent in a group home. He then segues into describing his life as a Blockbuster Video employee living in a college coop with his 'shroom-addled and poly-amorous cohorts. The final portions of the book are devoted to describing Rabin's ray-of-light, as it were, those years wherein he discovered The Onion as an outlet for his acerbic wit, as well as his short-lived tenure as a TV film critic.
The author's breadth of pop culture knowledge is without peer (except maybe Patton Oswalt), and Rabin's writing style is at once painful, honest, self-deprecating, and hilarious. I try to pace myself when I read a book, and it's a tribute to this author's gifts, and the story he has to tell, that I read, nay-devoured- this book in short order. After reading a few chapters of Nathan Rabin's sordid tale, I abandoned all hope of pacing myself. This was a thoroughly enjoyable read. I would also encourage readers to pick up Rabin's book "My Year of Flops."
on June 26, 2009
The Big Rewind contains many interesting anecdotes, but I'm left wondering the point of it all. I would certainly recommend it to people who've enjoyed his pivotal role at The Onion with the A.V. Club, and I can write that now that I've been "introduced" to him, I'll watch his career with interest; however, I find myself unable to give the book more than 3 stars.
I find myself needing to explain in some coherent way my ambivalence. Mr. Rabin is intelligent, with a biting wit, and he tells of a complex and tragic childhood. I can only be glad he grew up to find success in a field and an arena that embraces his skills. Still, I don't know what this book is supposed to be.
I thought it as meant to be about how pop culture informs and bookmarks critical moments in our lives, but that aspect never takes center stage. It's there, but only slightly more so than you'd expect in any memoir. The chapters are introduced with references, there's a solid portion about how music was important to him while in a group home, but this was not to the level I would expect when told the book is "Brought to [me] By Pop Culture.(Ironically, I'll always associate this book with the day Michael Jackson and Farrah Fawcett died.)This is clearly written by a guy who is interested in popular culture, but that takes a back seat to the memoir. The cultural references are what I'd anticipated being the common ground that made me feel a connection with Mr. Rabin.
The writer is well-known in certain circles, but he doesn't have the level of celebrity where the point of telling about his life is to illuminate the life of someone very famous. While his childhood is movingly discussed, there's nothing there that indicates shining light on the foster or mental health systems is his goal.
Rabin cites Girl, Interrupted as a well-loved book, because Kaysen maintains that sometimes there is no real point to being locked up, but Kaysen was an adult, and Rabin was a child during his experiences. What might not be a shaping experience for her would clearly affect a teen who was in the system for years. Yet he doesn't really seem to fully explore what it means to him that as a child adults failed him repeatedly. Other than movies and music being lifelines, how did this shape the man he became?
A lot of the book is dedicated to AMC's Movie Club with John Ridley -- a review show he regularly appeared on -- and his issues with another reviewer. I'm pretty sure I'd never seen the show, so this was really long for me. I'm sure it would play better if the reader was more familiar with the show, and definitely something people reading this should keep in mind.
I don't think anyone can read his story and not like the author, but I'm not sure that completely justifies this book. Not yet. I suppose that as a memoir of a man with a troubled childhood who made good, it's at least ten years too early. I say this as someone who thinks from this meeting with him that he still has a lot that he's destined to achieve.
I'd love to see another effort from the author that involved more in depth analysis of the stuff he knows so well -- the books, shows, and movies that forms a connecting thread between people who are fans of the art around us. I'd also read a novel by him in a red hot second.
I give this 3 stars from the perspective of someone who expected more pop culture based on the title, would have accepted it if it had been a more fully realized story of the effects of a troubled childhood, but who still walked away impressed by the author. For people who come to this book as current fans, I'd imagine they would easily bump it up a star.
The writer says that great art makes the personal universal. I agree. I believe Mr. Rabin is capable of great art, but I think that's still to come.
on October 5, 2009
"Hopelessness is your friend." Words do not ring more true. Such hard-won, pessimistic wisdom as this is a bountiful element of Nathan Rabin's remarkable memoir The Big Rewind: A Memoir Brought to You by Pop Culture. His first book, Rabin recounts his fascinating life story that seesaws between the lows his lifelong battle with depression took him to (a brief imprisonment in a television-less mental institution at fourteen and some rather rough years spent in the college town of Madison, Wisconsin) and the exhilarating yet impermanent highs literally brought to him by pop culture (his popular work at The Onion's AV Club and the quasi-decadence of following in Ebert's footsteps as a film critic on a little-seen movie-review panel show for AMC).
Rabin learned early in his adolescence that looking ahead, hoping, optimism - these were things not meant for him because they could only lead to disappointment; it's far easier to win big when anything good in life comes as a pleasant surprise. After all, his coined sign-off for Newswires on the AV Club website is advising readers to be "cautiously optimistic." But for someone whom luck seems to have avoided like the plague at times, Rabin has had the pleasure of luck ferociously attacking him as well. Despite his traumatic and unconventional upbringing he has entered adulthood a well-adjusted man, perhaps due in large part to guidance coming at the right time from the right people. Or perhaps due to his own determination to come out on the other side of the fight as the winner, for a fight is what much of his life seems to have been. Rabin's strength is evident in his writing: he's been knocked down, but never knocked out.
In a perfect world, parents wouldn't have crippling illnesses or abandon their children, and group homes wouldn`t be necessary; bullies would not exist as people would never be insensitive, hurtful or vicious to others; we wouldn't fall victim to our own debilitating demons such as depression; and above all, unfortunate circumstances beyond our control would be unheard of. Instead, with his signature sharp humor and a loving embrace of pop culture, Rabin's memoir reveals how he maneuvered himself through this imperfect world using his "personal pantheon" as our guide. Each chapter's tone is set by a movie, book, song, or pop culture figure personally significant to Rabin and his story. It may seem reductionist to some to boil down his story to an assortment of pop culture artifacts - some more loosely associated to his story than others - but then you would miss his message. And indeed, who are we to judge the relevance of his association with these pop culture selections? Their import in this context are relevant to him and him alone.
In many ways pop culture saved him and it seems only fitting for him to relate his story through the prism of pop culture. At 33, Rabin has a lot of life left to live. We are "cautiously optimistic" that any future sequel to his memoir will tell a much happier tale of fortune and glory.
Additional Notes: It should be pointed out that the above Washington Post review incorrectly interprets Rabin's "head writer" role at the AV Club and falsely paints the publication as the "brainchild" of Rabin when in fact it was created by former editor Stephen Thompson. Rabin is not an editor and does not have creative control over the content of the publication, except what he publishes himself in features. Also, his "My Year of Flops" column with the AV Club is proof enough that he has an undying love for pop culture. The Washington Post review is very much so off the mark to believe Rabin, or anyone else at AV Club for that matter, hates pop culture.
on July 7, 2009
Legends have circulated for centuries about the magical powers that Nathan Rabin's The Big Rewind holds. Some say that it can open a portal to Hell, while others claim that it can raise the dead, with still others believing that it can summon vampire spirits from another dimension. I was of course skeptical. But still, it's not every day that one gets the opportunity to hold a mystical tome rumored to have magical powers in their hands. So I rushed out to my local bookseller to grab a copy of The Big Rewind. When I arrived home I immediately dashed into my bathroom (the only room in my humble apartment that has a mirror). I locked the door, lit a couple scented candles and turned off the light. I opened the book and began reading. I was captivated by Rabin's razor-sharp wit and fascinating life's story, all recounted through the prism of a deep appreciation for pop culture, both "high" and "low." The book's 300-plus pages flew by at lightning-speed and I admit I almost forgot the mysterious events that may have been following. As I intoned the final word of the book, I was overwhelmed by a sense I was no longer alone. I began to hear a strange, sinister whisper, accompanied by what I can only describe as a rhythmic chanting. My bathroom grew very cold and the scented candles were snuffed out. I dropped to my knees as the chanting grew louder - "Oh God!" I cried out, "Please save me from these demonic spirits I have summoned!" But it was to no avail. My body began to thrash about wildly, outside my conscious control. I started coughing up strange fluids that were unidentifiable in the dark. Then, my head banged up against one of the sharp corners in my bathroom, mercifully sending me into unconsciousness. When I awoke there was blood all over the walls and I had soiled myself. I'll probably never know for sure what happened after I went out, but I know it must have been something unspeakably evil. So please, heed the rumors about The Big Rewind, even if they seem too unbelievable to be true. I wish that I had.
This book is both hilarious and heartfelt. It's an autobiography of someone who rose to fame and success from the lowliest of beginnings. I have to say I was a little put off when I started it because of all the cultural references the author makes. They're all the examples of things that have influenced him over the years, but I found it a little overwhelming!
As I got further into the book, it started grabbing me more. The author picks a literary or musical work as the theme of each chapter and tells his life story chronologically, eventually tying up at the end of each chapter the cultural reference, and how it parallels that stage in his life. He also provides a peek at where the next chapter is going, which turns it into quite a page-turner.
His experiences in the mental hospital as a teenager struck me so sad, yet I could picture him, and it made me better understand some troubled people I've personally known.
The author has a way of talking about a subject so dark and depressing, and then interjecting a reference or personal quote that is so hilariously jarring, I found myself laughing out loud while reading about his group home experience!
Fans of Conan O'Brien, the Daily Show, and (of course) the Onion will like this book. He has a very descriptive writing style, and uses the old "I'm going to make you my best newsboy, see!!!" lines that I grew up watching Conan deliver.
As a warning, there is a LOT of profanity in this book, and it seems to be aimed at "Gen-Xers" since the author counts himself among this group. But if you're prepared for that, you'll love this book!
on June 13, 2014
I looked up this author because I liked what he wrote about a film I was interested in (Short Term 12). I am so glad I did. I've admired Mr. Rabin from afar after reading his prose from "The Onion." No matter what page I opened this book to, I couldn't finish an entire page without at least cracking a smile. His humility and maturity came through as he described his past. I've already passed the book on, but have a number of friends in line to read it. As a result of this, I just bought "You Don't Know Me ..." I can't wait to read it. I'll let you know, but I'm sure I'll love it just as much.