Balsamic Dreams and Baby Boomers

Balsamic Dreams sounds like the perfect read; meat and drink for a card carrying Curmudgeonly Baby Boomer in need of a haircut. Available from Takealot as an e-Book for R73, it’s the perfect birthday present. I think I’ll treat myself in memory of late 1962 when the Cuban Missile Crisis threatened to escalate; it didn’t escalate and we lost our innocence.

“BALSAMIC DREAMS.” by Joe Queenan

Ed: Since I haven’t read the book it seems pointless (not to mention disingenuous) to try to write a review so I have quoted a couple of public domain excerpts from various sources (accredited) and here they are.

But before you read on here are a couple of pics to remind Baby Boomers of the fantasy – “ah was theya when they dropped the bomb on mah heyad”, “ah smoked weed with Dylan, must’ve been Dylan ’cause he had a harmonica”.

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Balsamic Dreams book coverFrom Publisher Weekly: What distinguishes the baby boomers? According to film and social critic Queenan (Red Lobster, White Trash, and the Blue Lagoon) in this witty, sardonic and heartfelt paen to his fellow aging boomers, they weren’t the first generation to sell out “but they were the first generation to sell out and then insist that they hadn’t.” Deftly distilling the impact of a wide range of events in popular culture, he cites April 21, 1971, as one of “ten days that rocked the world” for boomers, with the release of Carol King’s album Tapestry. Meanwhile, recent films such as What Lies Beneath and The Haunting appeal to boomers, he observes, with the message, “Just because you’re dead doesn’t mean you can’t get your life organized.” And, he asks, won’t someone “admit that La Vita e Bella is Holocaust-denying crap?” Queenan occasionally belabors his humorous conceits (e.g., he ranks baby boomers as the 267th best generation, “right behind the Carthaginians in 220 B.C.”). Yet he can also cut to the quick: “We abandoned the poor, the downtrodden and the oppressed [for] postdoctoral work in American Studies….We made millionaires out of nitwits like Deepak Chopra and Tom Clancy while geniuses starved.”

From Goodreads. From the bestselling author of Red Lobster, White Trash and the Blue Lagoon comes a vintage Queenan tirade chronicling the evolution of his own Baby Boomer Generation. How did a generation that started out at Woodstock and Monterey end up at Crate & Barrel? How did a generation that promised to “teach its children well” end up with a progeny so evil they could give Damien from The Omen a run for his money? And what is so fascinating about porcini mushrooms? Professional iconoclast Queenan shows how a generation with so much promise lost its way by confusing pop culture with culture and mistaking lifestyle for life.

Queenan on The Sixties: “Baby Boomers who never saw Hendrix, did drugs, locked or loaded an AK-47 in country or bedded down with a girl named Radiance now all pretend they did. It’s like those Civil War reenactment buffs who have drunk so much Wild Turkey they actually think they were at Chickamauga.”

Queenan on Death: “A generation whose primary cultural artifact is the Filofax has enormous difficulty shoehorning death into its schedule: it’s inconvenient, time-consuming and stressful. ‘We don’t have time to die this afternoon; Caitlin has ballet.‘”

From Bookpage. A columnist for The New York Times, author Joe Queenan had a bestseller in 1998 with Red Lobster, White Trash, and the Blue Lagoon, a critique of pop culture that skewered everything from fast food restaurants to John Tesh concerts. His latest, Balsamic Dreams: A Short But Self-Important History of the Baby Boomer Generation, is equal parts humor and venom, a book written by a Boomer and filled with all the angst that has characterized that age group since the introduction of the Hula Hoop.

Applying his razor wit to his own generation, Queenan charts its course from the sacrifices of the ’60s to the excesses of the ’80s from activism to materialism. A good-natured grump, he has fun taking his generation to task, and this kind of self-loathing, mixed with his social commentary, always makes for belly laughs. “A friend of mine once remarked that when Baby Boomers are old and decrepit, no one is going to go out and make a Saving Private Ryan commemorating their finest hour,” he writes. “They didn’t have a finest hour.”

Queenan often writes tongue-in-cheek, but at times his commentary has all the subtlety of an in-your-face raspberry. For Boomers, the best kind of comic is an angry one and, with his own choleric brand of humor, Queenan carries on that tradition splendidly. Survivors of the ’60s will laugh all the way through this satire and then they will hate Queenan for writing it, which is what he wants, for only in being hated by others of his generation can he feel good about himself. It’s a Boomer thing.

Michael Dirda, Washington Post. In his previous book (My Goodness: A Cynic’s Short-Lived Search for Sainthood), Joe Queenan described himself as “an acerbic, mean-spirited observer of the human condition. . . a curmudgeon, a gadfly . . . a sneering churl,” as well as a journalistic “hired gun,” a “human adder” and “basically horrible.” All lies. The only irritating thing about Joe Queenan — at least for any reader with a sense of humor — is his frequent misuse of “like” when he means “as if” or “as though.” Otherwise, reading his essays on movies, television, contemporary culture and politics comes pretty close to pure pleasure.

However, before geysering on, in the way of Baby Boomer poetry reviewers, about the luminous resonance, truly extraordinary personal bravery and edgy brilliance of Balsamic Dreams, not to mention its astonishing, even transcendent wisdom and awesome insight, I must first register one critical cavil. Queenan is basically a magazine writer — for GQ, Forbes, TV Guide and a half-dozen other periodicals — and this latest book reads like a cobbled-together collection of wise-cracking columns and reviews. Nowhere is this publicly admitted, however. If you zip right through Balsamic Dreams, which most people are likely to end up doing, since the book is really funny, you’ll grow just the teensiest bit annoyed, even fatigued, by hearing certain allusions, jokes and turns of phrase repeated. The man clearly doesn’t like Ben & Jerry, Angela’s Ashes, baseball caps worn backward, reenactments of Civil War battles, and something called Burning Man, which I gather is a New Age spa for guys. He also misspells croix de guerre, Transoxiana and Stephen Ambrose.

That said, Balsamic Dreams doesn’t require reviewing, only quoting. Again and again, Queenan neatly dices and skewers the pretensions, hypocrisies and fashion mistakes of the generation that came of age during the 1960s. Even if you believe, as I do, that he’s wrong or hyperbolic more often than not, what does it matter? You don’t read a column in GQ as if it were Democracy in America.

Queenan opens his book by recalling a brush with what he suspected might be lung cancer. Thinking his mortal span was nearly spun, he immediately rushed off to study the piano, learn tai chi, acquire a personal trainer, start airplane lessons and book a ceremonial trip to Kathmandu. “When faced with unsettling developments like death, Baby Boomers always react the same way: We sign up for self-improvement classes.” After realizing that he was only suffering from a seasonal allergy, our man decided that it was time to examine the ethos, “the appalling values” of his generation. He does this by making lists of paradigmatic cultural mistakes (Carole King’s record “Tapestry”), chronicling lame Boomer attempts at retroactive hipness (CEOs who dress like grunge rockers with ponytails), and noting the typical ’60s segue from youthful social concern for the oppressed to a McMansion in a gated community and exclusive private schools for little Chase and Marina paid for by a scumball job in some corporate law firm. In particular, our latter-day Savonarola enjoys scourging the Boomers’ desperate and pathetic cult of the self:

“Who but the Baby Boomers . . . would fill their leisure time with books and magazines and courses about feng shui, yachting, calligraphy, mountain-biking, the joy of soy, tantric sex, out-of-body experiences, three-minute abs, quantum therapy, communicating with dead loved ones, Qi Jong, lower back pain, telepathic communication with animals, Buddhism, woodworking, preparing sushi, realigning one’s chakras, Incan pottery, self-hypnosis, chatting with trustworthy angels, Mayan prophesies, vibrational sound healing, nonsurgical face-lifts, mat cutting and municipal bonds, and then act like one more dumb-ass magazine put out by jaded yuppie journalists in New York City could possibly improve their lives? When previous generations had problems organizing their lives, they turned to religion or literature or genies. When Baby Boomers have problems organizing their lives, they turn to Time Warner and AOL.”

Besides laying waste to his own generation, Queenan also manages to take his hatchet to many of the annoyances of modern life: cell phones, the Internet, Tom Brokaw, revisionist history that blames the Founding Fathers for being sexist, racist and environmentally insensitive, and even store clerks who post Staff Recommendations:

“I can’t imagine anything lower on my list of Things to Do than to find out what the people earning the minimum wage at the local video store think I should be viewing these days. It’s not just the predictability of their choices — invariably, it’s going to be a Belgo-Manchurian animated film about a female vampire with AIDS, starring Shannon Tweed, Harry Dean Stanton and somebody who looks like Bjork — just as the Staff Recommendation at the bookstore is invariably going to be a luminous novel written in incandescent prose by a Finnish dwarf prodigy who was molested by a cross-dressing Cypriot brain surgeon while on her way to Graceland. No, it’s not the predictability of it all that gets to me. It’s the insolence. Since when does anyone care what shop clerks think about anything? Who died and left them in charge?”

As this last cri du coeur indicates, Queenan can occasionally sound a little cranky and overheated — and yet you never feel he’s fundamentally mean. He is, however, clearly pro-family, an admirer of tradition, honest work and religious conviction, sensitive to what is proper, probably Republican, and almost preternaturally sensitive to American kitsch: If Jim Morrison had lived, Queenan imagines that come 1994 the aging artiste would have been recording “Faith and Begorrah: ‘Tis the Celebration of the Lizard with the Chieftains.” You just know he’s right.

At times, Queenan’s cultural observations can even rival those of a French aphorist: “A few generations ago people were expected to be decent. Now everyone is supposed to be clever. The whole country is infested with constitutionally unamusing people who think they’re hilarious. Or worse, sardonic. . . ” Or again: “It is no accident that classical music has been in steady decline for a generation, and that the average age of symphonic concerts is now eighty-four. Classical music stirs deep emotions, and Baby Boomers do not have deep emotions.” Or, last one: Baby Boomers “got teargassed once, then went to work for Goldman Sachs. But they still think that beneath that investment banker’s suit beats the heart of a rebel. They all secretly believe that they’ll run off and join Shining Path when their kids are out of college.” In short, concludes Joe Queenan, the entire Baby Boomer generation is “embarrassing themselves, their children, their parents, the whole country.”

Exaggeration? Yes. But going too far is how satire works, and Balsamic Dreams is, as we Boomers would say, just about as good as it gets.



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Ed also makes the coffee...

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