Posts tagged ‘book’

November 30, 2016

#121) Book review: “The Sex Lives of Cannibals”

It’s hard not to have one’s interest piqued by a book with a title such as “The Sex Lives of Cannibals” but it also begs the question of whether the rest of the book will live up to that promise. Thankfully in the case of J. Maarten Troost’s travelogue of two years on Tarawa in the Republic of Kiribati (pronounced KEER-uh-bahss), the answer is yes.

“Sex Lives” combines two related themes – fish out of water; American attempts to “civilize” the savages but ends up learning from them – and throws in a welcome shot of self-deprecation. Granted, the effectiveness of self-deprecation depends on how deeply the self is willing to deprecate, but Troost’s humor is believable. While he occasionally makes his writing skill and deep insights part of the story, for the most part he keeps it real. In the mid 1990s, before his Tarawa odyssey, Troost, having recently completed graduate school, finds himself professionally and emotionally adrift. “Job offers were not forthcoming, most likely because I didn’t apply for any jobs…Instead I went to Cuba….One may wonder how an unemployed ex-graduate student…could afford a trip to Cuba…in an act of colossal misjudgement, American Express had agreed to give me a credit card.” En route to Tarawa, Troost and his girlfriend Sylvia stop at Johnson Atoll, a desert island with a long and infamous history of U.S. nuclear testing. “It is tempting to dash off a page or two and expound upon the philosophical implications of Johnson Atoll….for writers more ambitious than I this would be like catnip,” Troost notes. “However….I was not struck by any profound ruminations. My thoughts were more along the lines of Could someone please close the fucking door before we all turn into mutants?”

The dichotomy of lofty ideals and mundane reality is an ongoing theme of “Sex Lives.” Many well meaning white Europeans and Americans have had big plans for Kiribati, including Sylvia, who is hired as a country director for the Foundation for the Peoples of the South Pacific-Kiribati Office. Her job is to educate the natives; one way she does so is to produce “message oriented plays on the importance of green, leafy vegetables and the proper treatment of diarrhea, among other topics not typically explored on Broadway.” Meanwhile, the islanders, with their “if it ain’t broke” attitude view these outsiders (I-Matangs) with a mix of amusement and resentment. It doesn’t take Troost long to understand their perspective. While he’s shocked at how complacent the I-Kiribati are about rampant disease, an infant mortality rate of almost 10% and an average life expectancy of 52 (men) and 55 (women) he also notes that “the greatest beneficiaries of I-Matang aid were the I-Matangs themselves.” On editing a feasibility study about farming on the island, he says, “It must have looked like a sensible thing to do over an espresso in Rome. Of course, how one transports perishable vegetables from an island that lacks electricity and refrigerators was never quite addressed…” When a team of anti-smoking specialists try to educate the I-Kiribati about the tobacco industry’s evil plans: “The moment these sullen but healthy Western people departed [the I-Kiribati] opened up their tins of Irish tobacco and rolled their cigarettes with pandanus leaves and had a good laugh as they began an evening of serious drinking…the 1996 figures on causes of morbidity in Kiribati…included 99,000 cases of influenza…15,000 cases of diarrhea…and 44 new cases of leprosy…no one lived long enough to be mortally embraced by lung cancer or emphysema.”

Another dichotomy is the two faces of life on Kiribati: “[a] visceral form of bipolar disorder. There is the ecstatic high, when you find yourself swept away in a lagoonside maneaba [meeting house] rumbling to the frenzied singing and dancing of hundreds of rapturous islanders. And there are the crushing lows, when you succumb to a listless depression, brought about by the unyielding heat, sporadic sickness, pitiless isolation, food shortages…” For a Westerner used to modern comforts and conveniences, Kiribati is a culture shock, but as Maarten and Sylvia adjust to life on Tarawa, their perspective about necessity and priorities change.  As Sylvia’s contract ends, they consider staying longer. “Once I aspired to be a foreign correspondent for the New York Times,” Troost muses. “Now I aspired to open a coconut with the same panache as the I-Kiribati.”

Lessons not withstanding, Troost isn’t out to make us pick between the simplicity of island life and the complexity of the modern world as much as he is to find comedy in the differences between the two. When he decides that he simply must get a hold of the New Yorker to read about the Monica Lewinsky scandal (“I often found myself approaching other I-Matangs. ‘I’ll trade you my December 1978 Scientific American – it’s about this new thing called computers – for your March 1986 Newsweek’“) the resulting phone call is on par with Peter Sellers’ conversation with the Russian premier in “Dr. Strangelove.” “There are no street names, there’s only one street here,” Troost tries to explain to the befuddled woman in the New Yorker’s international subscriptions department.

As for the literal promise of the title, there’s not much in the way of sex or cannibalism, but “Sex Lives” provides consistent mental stimulation and entertainment nonetheless. It’s the type of book of which I wish Bill Bryson and his ilk would write more: intellectually engaging without being ponderous; dryly humorous without being too arch. No, this book didn’t make me want to vacation in Kiribati any time soon but that’s not Troost’s goal. His goal is to find life, culture and humor in a place that many will go their whole lives without ever realizing exists and he succeeds.

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March 5, 2016

#108) Book review: “Candy Girl” by Diablo Cody

For the first time in almost two years: a review of a book I’ve actually read.

I’ve been a bit of a literary slump lately and what better way to break out of it than with a memoir of stripping? I’d heard of the book that begat the career that begat “Juno” and when I saw it at a local thrift store, much as Cody did when she passed by the Skyway Lounge in Minneapolis, thought, “Why not?”

There’s no doubt that Diablo Cody has a way with words. One moment she’s deadpanning “You can’t make this up” anecdotes in a homey, Francis-McDormand-in-“Fargo” sort of way (“When I rose to exit the booth, he’d assume the down dog position and lick up the man chowder.”) The next she’s managing to sound sympathetic even as she pulls similes out of parts unknown (“The city perspires Grain Belt beer and its pale, bloated denizens…float like Wonder Bread on the lake off Hidden Beach….I found these civilian displays of nudity endearing…”) She tells one client an improvised story about being sodomized at 13 by a tennis camp instructor as punishment for her lousy backhand. When a customer tells her that she looks like his sister–with whom he’s had sex–without missing a beat, she suggests that he bring her into cover one of her shifts. Yet, as entertaining and occasionally laugh out loud funny as the book is, at ten years old, “Candy Girl” largely hasn’t stood the test of time.

In 2006, the Kardashians and Nicki Minaj weren’t yet ubiquitous; Snapchat, Grinder and selfie sticks were still years away. “Candy Girl” made a splash in this world, proving that a book can at once be literate and witty while still generously using the “C” word. Adding to the appeal was Cody’s lack of a specific platform and refusal to fall into a predictable category. Her memoir was not a shocking or mud-raking expose; though she’s been labeled a “feminist stripper” by some there are few if any feminist overtones to her writing. “Candy Girl” allowed readers to make their own opinions.

Ten years later, the book’s detached tone arguably does more harm than good. Cody seems to have expected her story to hold up on the strength of extreme sex, endless wit and the unlikely juxtaposition of two, but in a post-Miley Cyrus and “Two Girls, One Cup” world where Donald Trump may become the next president, foot fetishes and incest seem quaint. What would have made “Candy Girl” hit home in a more lasting way would have been the presence of a character who transcends the perversity like a miniature Katniss. Okay, a stripping memoir might not be the best place to look for deep character development, but it would have been nice to see Cody use her writing talent to infuse her subjects with more memorable detail. Cody the stripper/dancer is sympathetic but not interesting; she occasionally refers to her interest in stripping as “anthropological” and born from a “need for depravity” but these ideas are never developed. Her boyfriend is likable and supportive but similarly forgettable. The other strippers, managers and customers blend into each other.

Had “Candy Girl” been much longer than its 212 pages, it might have joined the ranks of “Dogtown” as one of my literary lost causes. Some books (“Islands Apart”) take a long time to read because they are slow; “Candy Girl” took me two months because it’s too fast. Cody goes from outfit to outfit, wig to wig, sex club to sex club without making any of it compelling; for all the surface details she provides about each club and each experience, the reader is left not caring. While the laughs and gasps (and it takes a lot to make me gasp) worked on an immediate level, when “Candy Girl” was out of sight, it was out of mind. Coming back to the story was never a priority.

July 18, 2013

#57) Book review: “In A Sunburned Country” by Bill Bryson

There are books that may be enjoyable but not particularly worthy of discussion and there are books that are worthy of discussion but not particularly enjoyable.  In that second category is Bill Bryson’s “In A Sunburned Country.”

After loving “A Walk in the Woods” and being disappointed by “Lost Continent”, I decided to try this travelogue of Australia, mainly because I was looking forward to reading a book that didn’t contain the phrase “Most Americans _____.”  (Yes, Americans are idiots, but Bryson usually points this out in a way that makes you wonder how he hasn’t pulled a muscle from patting himself on the back.)

Conversely, Bryson goes too far in the opposite direction with Australia. It’s like when someone wants you to meet their friend and have talked your ear off about how great this friend is to the extent that you hate them before you even meet them. Just as “Lost Continent” was essentially a laundry list of complaints and disappointments about America with no real conclusion or evolution, “Sunburned Country” lacks any significant tension or suspense as Bryson travels across the continent, experiencing one wonderful thing after another, using the words “charming”, “cheery” and (especially) “arresting” ad nauseum.

In general Bryson is stronger when delivering facts, not opinions. He has a definite knack for making history and science interesting without dumbing them down.  He partially makes good on his promise to describe the country’s unique and often deadly wildlife (the box jellyfish seems like a particularly tough customer.)  He’s unsparing in his description of how the Aborigines were treated and presents interesting questions on how they may have come to the island to begin with.  He paints a fairly engaging picture of the vast space and searing sun of the Outback, describing several of history’s ill-fated attempts to cross it.  He clearly loves Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth, providing some historical background on each.   Still, the reality is that it took me almost two months to get through this book, ultimately bailing on the appendix about the Sydney Olympics.

What would have made “In A Sunburned Country” more effective?

Trimming some of the personal narrative would have helped.  Bryson spends nearly 30 pages on a visit with a friend in Victoria; while this section of the book has some good historical anecdotes and descriptions of the natural landscape, it easily could have been halved.  The friend certainly seems like a nice enough fellow but he’s just not that interesting.  More of a dramatic arc would have been nice.  In “A Walk in the Woods”, Bryson’s plight on the Appalachian Trail makes him seem more sympathetic to the reader; he earns his soap box time.  At the beginning of “Sunburned Country” he loves Australia; at the end of “Sunburned Country” he loves Australia.  Perhaps I may someday visit Australia and understand why he loves it; if so I will happily revise this review.  For now, I will stick to foreign vacations with a shorter flight time.