Posts tagged ‘books’

August 18, 2017

#132) Book review: “Getting Stoned with the Savages” by J. Maarten Troost

Having enjoyed “The Sex Lives of Cannibals” by J. Maarten Troost, when I found its sequel, “Getting Stoned with Savages” at a thrift store, I felt confident the book would be a good return on a one dollar investment, especially since I had a long plane trip coming up. Indeed, my investment was returned – but not by as much as I would have liked. Despite some good moments, like many sequels, “Savages” is basically a less potent rehashing of the original. Upon returning from my trip, still twenty pages from the end, having forgotten that I’d placed the book in a different pocket of my suitcase from where I usually store reading material, thought that I’d left it at the hotel. When I found it, I was mildly relieved, but certainly wouldn’t have been heartbroken about missing the last twenty pages.

At the beginning of “Savages” Troost and his wife Sylvia find themselves leaving the U.S. for the South Pacific. The Troost of “Savages”, however, is a different protagonist from that of “Cannibals”: while his Kiribati voyage was basically done on a whim, born from lack of direction, his trip to Vanuatu (changed from Fiji after the coup of 2000) was a conscious decision. After having lived in utter deprivation for two years in Kiribati, the Troosts found that despite its material comforts, life in Washington, D.C. was pretty much empty. “Savages” is at its best when it describes that disconnect in a way that is alternately poignant (“I couldn’t recall the last time I had really savored something–a book, a sunset, a fine meal. It was as if the sensory overload that is American life had somehow lead to a sensory deprivation, a gilded weariness, where everything is permitted and nothing is appreciated…”) and humorous (“While…finding a decomposing pig in your yard is not an ideal way to begin one’s day, I found that beginning each new day in Washington, as I did, with the shocking blast of an alarm clock buzzer, shortly to be followed by a frantic race to the office, where I would be greeted by…ninety-two new messages, of which thirty-seven were alleged to be urgent…well, I found that such a day stinks too.”)

Within twenty-four hours of the Troosts’ arrival on Vanuatu, their island nostalgia is shattered as a seemingly care-free drive along country roads turns into an ordeal when their jeep gets stuck in the mud. But while this would seem to be a set-up for a humorous “the grass isn’t always greener” story, “Savages” soon runs out of gas, sorely missing the fish out of water element that made “Cannibals” work. That’s not to say that life on Vanuatu (and later Fiji, where the Troosts move after the dust settles from the coup) is all fun and games – they endure a cyclone and lose their backyard to a mudslide – but Troost fails to give these incidents much bite. Yes, we are rooting for him, but only because he’s the Good Guy in some abstract sense, not because he’s particularly interesting or charismatic. While the Troost of “Cannibals” had to fight a daily battle for survival, the Troost of “Savages” has time to explore and delve into the history of the area, but fails to make it very interesting. Maybe I’m just one of the typical, non-intellectually-curious Americans that made Troost glad to leave the U.S. but this book didn’t make me want to frantically google information about the history of relations between India and Fiji or the impact that French colonists from New Caledonia have had on Vanuatu.

That’s not to say that “Savages” doesn’t have its flashes of brilliance. Troost’s send-up of the writing style of Captain James Cook rivals the funniest bits from “Cannibals” and when he plays the “silly Americans” card he at least does it with some humor: “Apparently, while we had been living abroad, someone had sent a missive to all Western women under the age of twenty-five: Put a large tattoo above your butt.” Other times he shrewdly backs out, allowing unintentional American humor to speak for itself: “So that works out to about $415 a square foot. We’re roughly at $375 where we live. I bought a house last month that I plan on flipping when it gets to $400.” Ironically, the book also delves a lot more into cannibalism than “Sex Lives of Cannibals”: Troost devotes a chapter to a trek to one of Vanuatu’s remote “kastom” (“custom” – where traditions remain unchanged over millennia) islands where the locals still “eat the man.”

Sadly, its bright spots notwithstanding, I took about twice as long to get through “Savages” as I did the 40-pages longer “Cannibals.” My copy’s fate will likely see it re-donated to a thrift store where someone else can decide if they want to make a one dollar investment.

 

 

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July 19, 2016

#117) Book review: “Off the Leash: A Year at the Dog Park” by Matthew Gilbert

I had three purposes in reading this book. First, having recently become a dog parent, I was curious about the author’s experiences with and observations of dog park culture. Second, the park in question is Amory Park in my hometown of Brookline, MA, a spot where I spent many youthful summer evenings playing catch, listening to bands and not having sex. Third, I’m intrigued by new angles on old formulas and I wanted to see how “Off the Leash” did with “Dog Teaches Human To Open Up And Embrace Life.”

As a non-dog person growing up, Matthew Gilbert never expected himself to be the parent of Toby, a yellow lab. Having often felt socially inept, he usually avoided interactions. As an adult, it was easy for him to hide behind work or his cell phone instead of connecting with strangers. However, at the dog park, all bets are off. On regular trips to the park, Gilbert learns to let go of his inhibitions, both by watching Toby play with reckless abandon and by finding himself in close proximity to people whose paths he never otherwise would have crossed.

There’s an old joke about a baseball game being fifteen minutes of action crammed into three hours. “Off the Leash” is an essay crammed into a memoir. Gilbert has points that he believes are important (and maybe they are) but he repeats them to the extent that they lose their meaning. His prose, laden with flowery similes and deep insights, seems to be aimed more toward scoring points with editors and reviewers than entertaining the general public. Gilbert spends four pages analyzing how throwing a ball to Toby brings back childhood memories of gym class ineptitude but then aborts on story lines that have potential. One regular is described as an author of terrible puns; we never hear any of them. A woman with rectangular glasses and crazy hair has never heard of Britney Spears or Madonna but there’s no backstory to explain her avoidance of popular culture. Sure, readers don’t always need their hand held, but while Gilbert is busy with minutiae, he doesn’t give us enough reason to care about the dog park regulars or even his own journeys from outcast to social butterfly; from being afraid of dogs, dirt and chaos to embracing them. It’s both disappointing and surprising that Gilbert, a TV critic for the Boston Globe, hasn’t created more memorable characters.

I found myself comparing this book (and I’m sure I’m not the only one) to “Marley and Me.” Granted, Gilbert’s going for a more subdued, observational humor than the belly laughs caused by Marley’s antics, but still, “Marley and Me” spoke to me more when I read it as a non dog person than “Off the Leash” did when I read it as a dog person. John Grogan was able to sell me on Marley as a projection of himself–awkward and unruly but ultimately loyal beyond measure. Gilbert’s attempts to do so both with himself and Toby and with other dogs and their humans seem forced; he describes the bond between dogs and owners as a “caravan” and then proceeds to use that word more often than Bill Bryson uses the word “arresting” in “In A Sunburned Country.” Grogan also makes the locales part of the story, particularly in how Marley’s unrefined energy terrorizes the beautiful people of Boca Raton and their chihuahuas. By contrast, there’s nothing particularly special about Gilbert’s Amory Park. I frequently had to remind myself, “Dude, you should be more interested in this…it takes place in Brookline.”

That’s not to say that “Leash” doesn’t have its merits. Gilbert has a nice eye for detail, in particular how he captures the nuances of the changing seasons during the year he chronicles. One of the few well developed characters is an old man who has no dog but comes to the park for the company, providing a touch of melancholy that rings bittersweet without being preachy. Some of Gilbert’s observations hit the mark in spite of themselves: “We were at the Cheers bar and the dogs were the booze that loosened us up.” Others are poignant without being too sentimental: “Sometimes someone you liked just vanished…and you knew you’d never see that person again in the same casual way. You’d run into them in the market and awkwardly ask after each others’ dogs. You’d had a special daily bond that you couldn’t easily conjure up or recreate on a cell phone.”

“Off the Leash” is weighty at times but ultimately doesn’t ask too much of its readers. It’s short, often piquant and when it waxes literary at a level beyond appropriate for the subject matter (“The wooden picnic tables continued their distinguished aging process…”) it’s easy to tune out. Airplane, at the beach, before bed: these are a few of the contexts where “Off the Leash” can best give what it gives: an essay’s worth of mildly amusing, occasionally interesting observations on life disguised as a 220-page memoir.

June 17, 2015

#95) When parodies fail: Why I’m not “wild” about “Rabid”

Having deconstructed a memoir of which I only read about a third, I’ll now try my hand analyzing a book where save for a few snatches of the Amazon preview, I’ve read none.

I understand why “Rabid”, a parody of Cheryl Strayed’s best selling memoir “Wild”, exists. Over-saturation is the mother of parody and for the last few years, it’s been hard to escape “Wild” or the throngs of adoring (rabid, if you will) Cheryl Strayed fans and their blog posts about how her book changed their life. That said, author Libby Zangle’s attempt to send-up Strayed doesn’t work. How can I tell that after having only read a few paragraphs? Those few paragraphs are unfunny, predictable and full of jealousy. Just as one can watch a trailer for a movie and think “No way”, it doesn’t take Nostradamus to divine, even from a short sample, that this book is basically a self-indulgent rant. Its shortcomings provide instruction in how to and how not to make effective parody.

Though it sounds counter-intuitive, at the heart of every great parody is an affection or at least an empathy for its subject. The goal of “This is Spinal Tap” was not to make the audience hate hair metal or overblown progressive rock; when “Eat It” made Weird Al Yankovic a household name the idea was never that we should burn copies of “Thriller.”

Zangle’s writing has virtually no empathy and plenty of resentment toward Cheryl Strayed. To hear Zangle tell it, it’s almost as if Strayed’s self-destruction following her mother’s death was part of a master plan; fodder for a future best-selling memoir. In Chapter 2, “Does every tragic heroine have to do heroin?” Zangle finds herself in a dingy motel room, much as Strayed did on the night before she set off on the Pacific Crest Trail. Zangle gathers her hike inventory: “There was a red compression sack…one Nalgene bottle and one Gatorade bottle…There was a large syringe for shooting up heroin. Just kidding. The syringe was for backwashing my water filter.”

Despite her condescending attitude toward “Wild”, Zangle has obviously gone to lengths to replicate Strayed’s writing. The first lines of “Wild”: “The trees were tall, but I was taller, standing above them on a steep mountain slope in northern California.” “Rabid”: “The trees were tall. They were actually taller than me. Probably taller than most humans I have met…[b]ut…they actually looked small because of this funny thing called perspective…” While watching “Spinal Tap”, you get the sense that Reiner, Guest, McKean, Shearer et. al really had fun creating the down-on-their-luck, over the hill rock band. By contrast, Zangle comes off as the loner sitting at home on prom night writing in her journal about how much she hates the vapid popular girls who are dancing with the football players while really wanting nothing more than to be one of them.

Is “Wild” perfect? No; neither the memoir or its author are perfect, but to geek out on “Wild” as a how-not-to book is to miss its point. Of course Cheryl Strayed did a million things wrong, from her substance abuse to her lack of preparation for the trip. She lived to tell and has shared her experiences in a way that while sometimes is weightier and more ponderous than necessary has nevertheless connected with readers worldwide. Meanwhile Zangle remains a low-to-the-ground target, going for obvious laughs without making any kind of personal investment.

Perhaps there’s room for an effective parody of “Wild”–one which would respect Strayed’s journey while gently ribbing her self-seriousness. Perhaps Zangle will evolve as a writer and create more enjoyable parodies; hell, maybe I’ll even read one of them someday. If there’s more to “Rabid” than the Amazon preview, I’ll eat crow, but if it walks like a duck, talks like a duck and looks like a duck…

July 23, 2014

#82) Book review: “Islands Apart” by Ken McAlpine

“Islands Apart”, Ken McAlpine’s memoir of the Channel Islands of California, came dangerously close to being the second consecutive book from which I jumped ship.  Fortunately, there was enough about the book that worked to keep me going, although it did take me about 6 weeks to get through the 256-page volume.

If you don’t know what to expect from this book, you won’t get past the first five pages.  Even people such as myself who are die-hard fans of the Channel Islands National Park might find their interest tested.  However, McAlpine’s story ultimately pays off.

If you know anything about the Channel Islands, you know that a memoir of time spent on them will not be a wild, whacky, fun summer read.  The Channel Islands National Park’s prime offering is isolation; despite being only a few dozen air miles from civilization, the five islands in the park all are remarkably primitive.  Hikers, canoeists, campers and other outdoor enthusiasts who prepare for trip to the islands usually love it; those who don’t are miserable.  McAlpine understands this; he makes it clear to his readers that this book will be leisurely paced.  He doesn’t promise surprise plot twists or sex drugs and rock and roll.  He positions his book as a modern-day “Walden” and his story sees him spend a week on each of the five Channel Islands in the park – Santa Rosa, Anacapa, San Miguel, Santa Barbara and Santa Cruz.  In between the chapters on each island are episodes on the main land, in which he “would continue to look deeply at our world…explore experiences that spoke of our current world and times past too…”

I don’t envy McAlpine’s task of bringing the Channel Islands to life.  I love visiting them and count them among my favorite hiking destinations, but the only thing I could imagine that’s more difficult than spending a week each of them is finding things to say about the week spent on each of them.  While McAlpine ably recreates the desolate, wind-swept environment of the islands and also sees the beauty in the life that’s managed to thrive despite the barren and inhospitable climate, he also sometimes seems to be simply trying to show off his writing ability.  I for one got pretty tired of reading about how the sun “ladled the softest pink light” over the horizon and of homilies that are meant to be profound and inspirational but ultimately come off a little preachy: “We lay claim to the things we come across in our lives, as if it’s possible to own them, but you can no more own an island…than you can possess the fleeting moments that accumulate into a lifetime.”

On a bigger level, the book as a whole suffers from an irony.  While McAlpine purports to use his pilgrimages on the islands and mainland to better understand his fellow man and his world, his writing often has a Bill Bryson-esque sense of superiority.  This is apparent in the stock verbiage he uses to critique modern life: “In a world of freeways bordered by Subway sandwich shops and Walmarts…”  One is left feeling that despite the noble intentions of his journeys, McAlpine’s quest ultimately was about making himself look good.

Yet while he may have some of Bryson’s elitism, he also possesses some of his humor.  In describing his stay at a monastery, McAlpine notes, “conflicts [between the monks] were hard to envision….Father Luke super-glued my robe to the pew, or maybe Father Matthew spoke rudely to me in Latin.”  On San Miguel Island he states, “Researchers have shown that…ravens and crows can count and use rudimentary tools, placing them one evolutionary rung above entertainment reporters and contestants on American Idol.”

To his credit, McAlpine tells a story that might well have otherwise gone untold.  It’s a story that could have been told better; it’s a story that will likely connect with a limited audience.  Some of that audience may find themselves continuing on to “Off Season”, “Fog” or any of McAlpine’s other books.  Though I may be wrong, I predict that the next book reviewed on this site will be by a different author.

 

 

October 29, 2013

#61) Book review: “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls” by Peter Biskind

Like many of the films of the “New Hollywood” which it describes, Peter Biskind’s “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls” is something of a flawed masterpiece.  Biskind tells a compelling story–the rise and fall of the director as film star–taking us behind the scenes of classic films such as  “Chinatown”, “Taxi Driver”, “Apocalypse Now” and more, while delving into the lives of Coppola, Scorsese, Spielberg and other significant figures of the era.  However, just as New Hollywood did itself in with excess, so too the narrative of Biskind’s book could have used some trimming.

At its core, this is a rags to riches to rags story.  The directors at its center started from financially and socially humble beginnings.  They made the move to Hollywood.  They had a run of successful movies.  Success went to their heads.  By the ’80s, they were at best shadows of their former glory, at worst, irrelevant–or dead (though some in Hollywood might consider irrelevance a fate worse than death).

“Easy Riders” isn’t just about individuals however, it’s about an institution.  It’s about the disconnect between the American “zeitgeist” of the Vietnam era and the safe, forgettable films that the “Old Hollywood” was cranking out.  It’s about the influence of foreign directors–auteurs such as Fellini, Kurosawa and Godard–on American tastes in film and on American film makers.  It’s about a mindset of film making that might ultimately not have worked but still produced some great movies.

Biskind focuses on several central figures but describes many more; as if he’s aware of this, he adds a “cast of characters” index to remind us exactly who’s who.  He takes us into the unstable, lonely childhood of Francis Ford Coppola, who moves to L.A. only to find it not to his liking, settling instead in San Francisco and begrudgingly agreeing to direct a film based on Mario Puzo’s novel “The Godfather.”  He allows us to vicariously travel the journey of William Friedkin, who leaves an unhappy Chicago childhood behind when he wins the Oscar for “The French Connection” and gives legitimacy to the horror film with “The Exorcist.”  He follows awkward Steven Spielberg from Cincinnati to New Jersey to Phoenix and ultimately Hollywood, where he almost buries his career before it begins by running late and over budget on film that no one takes seriously: “Jaws.”  Lesser known figures in the book include Bob Evans, an executive who was said to have taken so many women to bed that he needed his housekeeper to help him keep track and acerbic film critic Pauline Kael who described a comedy as having laughs that were “sparser than an eighty-year old woman’s pubic hair.”

Though he hints from the outset that these directors’ early successes will be paid for later on, Biskind doesn’t seem to take any pleasure in chronicling their downfalls.  In fact, more often than not he sees it as a case of the punishment not fitting the crime.  While he acknowledges that ultimately the New Hollywood didn’t work and that problems from within were as much to blame as those from without, he clearly doesn’t like the producer-oriented system that took its place.  He speculates that even if the directors of the New Hollywood had behaved more responsibly, the movement wouldn’t have survived the blockbuster mentality of the 1980s.

Unlike the directors, actors, writers and executives of New Hollywood, Biskind doesn’t let his ego get in his way, but his writing still has shortcomings that prevent “Easy Riders” from being a truly great book.  Many of the minor characters in the book become forgettable; in detailing their bad behavior, Biskind doesn’t make them memorable and their names are hard to keep straight (expect to have to refer to the “cast of characters” index regularly).  While some of the characters are sympathetic despite their faults and others are truly scum, the majority of them are just forgettable.  Biskind devotes as many (if not more) pages to anonymous executive Frank Yablans than to Michael Cimino, who let the success from “The Deer Hunter” go to his head with “Heaven’s Gate”, the film that is blamed more than any other for bringing down New Hollywood.

The result is a book that, though it could have been more, will still definitely appeal to fans of the New Hollywood and its movies. While  he could have done it better, Biskind still tells a memorable story.  In the minds of many–not just the directors who survived it–the film industry has not changed for the better since New Hollywood.  Perhaps the ultimate point of “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls” is that after all of the fights, drugs, break-ups and deaths, many great movies have survived.

August 18, 2013

#58) A response to the 13 Utterly Disappointing Facts about Books

A couple of years ago a list of 12 disappointing facts about the music business appeared online, inspiring me to write this response.  Back in June, a list of 13 “utterly disappointing” facts about books was published and–in keeping with the D-Theory Blog’s tradition of touching on topics well after interest in them has peaked, I am weighing in.  As with my response to the music list, my goal isn’t to convince my readers that it’s a good thing that “50 Shades of Grey” is the best-selling book of all time in Britain; it’s simply to inspire people to read (pardon the pun) a little more deeply into the list and to realize that, while not encouraging, these facts aren’t the end of the world.  Like the music list, this list can also be seen as a call to action.

#1) In a 2012 survey, almost a fifth of children said they would be “embarrassed” if a friend saw them with a book.

Truthfully I’m surprised it’s that low; I’d bet that if the survey was given 20 or 30 years ago the results would have been similar.

#2) 54% of those questioned said they’d prefer watching TV to reading.

Same comments apply.

#3) 50 Shades of Grey is now the best selling book of all time in Britain.

And in two years, it will probably be outsold by something even worse.  Lots of things are hot for a while and then they’re forgotten.

#4), #5) & #6)

Snooki, Jessica Alba and Justin Bieber are all best-selling authors.

When times are stressful, some people just want an escape; “War and Peace” isn’t for everyone.  At least these books probably gave some hard-working ghost writer a well-earned gig.  Sidebar: Jessica Alba?  She’s harmless enough; is it really that upsetting that her book sold well?

#7) Book and eBook sales are down 9.3% in the U.S.

9.3%?  Not exactly Black Tuesday.  All products experience fluctuations in sales.

#8) The last Borders bookstore closed in September 2011.  Barnes & Noble…has been closing about 15 stores per year.

Yeah, I miss Borders.  I also miss Acres of Books in Long Beach, CA and the other independently owned bookstores that suffered by the presence of Borders and B&N.  It’s evolution; don’t cry too hard if you ever browsed Borders but actually bought the book from Amazon.  (Guilty.)

#9) eBook sales have officially topped printed book sales as of 2011.

And automobile sales have officially topped horse-drawn carriage sales.

#10) Forks, Washington now has Twilight-themed stores to cash in on tourists.

Graceland cashes in on tourists too.  Does that make Elvis disappointing?

#11) The four-book Twilight series has sold over 116 million copies, almost half as many as Stephen King’s entire canon.

Just as many facts from both the music list and this list have to do with evolution of technology, tastes, supply and demand, opinion plays a role in several of these facts as well, including this one.  Twenty or thirty years ago, many people said the same thing about Stephen King as they now do about the Twilight books.  My American Studies teacher said that for our term project we could do a report on “any American author except Stephen King.”

#12) It’s gotten so bad, books are now being MASSACRED for crafts.

Hmm, haven’t really noticed much of this going on, but I’m not always up to date on hot new trends.  (That reminds me, I need to buy a new spindle for my wax cylinder player.)

#13) One in four Americans said they read ZERO books last year.

A bummer, but truthfully I’m surprised it’s only one in four.

So what do we do with this information?  Like the music list, it is a call to arms of sorts to–like AA members–accept what we cannot change (the relationship between digital and print media; the idea that for a certain segment of the population crap will always be king) and change what we can (volunteer at the local library; donate books to the neighborhood school; find funny pictures that joke about Twilight and Instagram them.  It may be an uphill climb, but books are worth it.

Still-A-Better-Love-Story-Than-Twilight-17

November 30, 2012

#48) Book Review: “Tough Jews” by Rich Cohen

Most people don’t necesarily associate the words “Jew” and “Gangster”, and those who do probably think first of Meyer Lansky and Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel.  However, in Rich Cohen’s book “Tough Jews”, he outlines the extensive history of Jewish gangsters in the early 20th century, mainly in Brooklyn.  As the famous Italian crime families such as the Gottis and the Gambinos were making names for themselves, many Jewish gangsters were experiencing parallel rises and falls.  Colorful names such as “Tick Tock Tannenbaum”, “Pittsburgh Phil” (who was not from Pittsburgh or named Phil) and “Kid Twist” abounded.

Cohen tells the story from an interesting perspective.  His father, Herb Cohen, author of “You Can Negotiate Anything”, grew up in Brooklyn listening to the stories of the old-timers.  His friends, including Larry Zeiger, now known as Larry King, eventually moved and settled in other parts of the country, but kept a part of Brooklyn with them.  As one of them notes, “Being from Brooklyn is a full-time job.”  The stories were handed down to Rich Cohen, who seemed intrigued by the idea that “for once, a Jew in jail didn’t mean white-collar crime.”  Thus, the younger Cohen sought to learn more of the history of the Jewish gangster.

The result is often entertaining, although disorganized.  Cohen’s voice seems to shift frequently from an authoritative source somewhat dryly reciting names, dates and places, to a star-struck kid, fascinated by even the mundane nuances of his heroes’ lives.  Cohen presents Abe “Kid Twist” Reles as a sort of protagonist, but isn’t able to infuse him with much detail, good or bad, to make him seem human, or at the very least to distinguish him from the dozens of other gangsters mentioned in the book.  Similarly, while “Tough Jews” follows a loosely chronological outline–beginning with the influx of Jewish imigrants to New York in the early 20th century, and how they rose to power, were influenced by prohibition, the Depression and World War II–there are some back and forth shifts which seem a little out of place, disrupting the flow of the narrative.  Cohen also sometimes treats somewhat mundane events with elevated importance; it’s almost as if he’s trying to show off his own writing chops.

Still, for those interested in learning about this time in American history, “Tough Jews” is an enjoyable read.  It paints a picture of a New York that at times resembles the world of Damon Runyon, but also focuses on the grim realities of the lifestyle it describes.  One can begin to understand why Herb Cohen, Larry Zeiger and the others who grew up only a generation removed from the gangsters have a certain admiration for them.  Even Brownsville’s Mike Tyson, as it turns out, loves the old Jewish gangsters–which probably explains a lot.