Posts tagged ‘memoir’

May 15, 2017

#129) Book review: “Kasher in the Rye” by Moshe Kasher

You couldn’t make someone like Moshe Kasher up if you tried. Long before he became  a standup comic, guest star on “The League” and “Drunk History”, a writer and Mr. Natasha Leggero, he was, to quote his own description of his memoir, “A white boy from Oakland who became a drug addict, criminal, mental patient and then turned 16.” Thankfully, he recovered and not only lived to tell the tale, but did so in a way that is both moving and humorous.

Not surprisingly, the Moshe Kasher of “Kasher in the Rye” is a Holden Caulfield for our times. Add to that the libido of Alex Portnoy, a David Sedaris-esque attraction to depraved characters and two divorced deaf parents on opposite sides of the country and you begin to get a sense of what to expect.

Whether Kasher was one of the few white students at an inner city Oakland school or the only resident of an orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn who didn’t read Yiddish, he was an outsider. “Somewhere along the line, I figured the more I made people laugh, the less of a loser I would be,” he notes. He thrived in the role of class clown until his poor grades caused the school to decide that he had a learning disability. “A fat teacher/clinician combo meal of a woman approached me in class and pulled me aside with the private solemnity of an army officiant charged with delivering the heartbreaking condolences to the next of kin…’You learn differently than other students. Everyone learns differently and there’s nothing wrong with that. Some people learn better with their ears.’ As she talked, she pointed to her ears just in case I wasn’t aware of what an ear was.”

Embarrassed by having to go to “the retarded portable”, Kasher sought recognition by the other school misfits. “I breathed a deep sigh of relief when they took me in. These were the first people in my life who weren’t asking me what was wrong with me. They didn’t give a fuck.” Kasher felt a similar relief the first time he got high: “Before I got high, I had no idea that’s what had been wrong the whole time. It wasn’t that I had deaf parents…that I was fat and retarded or crazy, angry, Jewish or anything else. I just needed to get high…parents and shrinks never tell you that you will forget all the reasons you had to hate yourself. They don’t tell you that shit because then everyone will want to get high.”

The constant search for that high caused Kasher to lie, steal and fight his way to rock bottom, described in a way that is both disturbing and insightful. “Temptation stacked against prudence….temptation conquers. That’s how it should work. How it actually does work is much scarier…when the thought to take a hit, hit, I simply forgot I was planning on quitting. I just forgot…no struggle. How are you supposed to combat that?”

Yet Kasher manages to infuse the story of his downward spiral with a wealth of humor, however dark it may be. “Cisco was for real men. Cisco was my favorite. A lethal sort of synthetic bum wine, it was made out of a combination of distilled Now and Laters, Ajax, and broken dreams. People called it Liquid Crack. I called it dinner.” En route to running up a phone sex bill in the thousands of dollars: “I ejaculated to both Trinidad and Tobago. I brought rivers of cum to drought-addled islands. I e-JAH-culated onto Rastafarian marijuana fields.” On his enrollment in an alternative high school: “Literally, the entire student body…with one notable, adorable, Jewish exception, was straight up retarded…some were just mildly retarded…with enough smarts to make you wonder, ‘Is he or isn’t he?’ and then you’d see them picking their nose in front of a cute girl and you’d think, ‘Ahhh! Of course!'”

“Kasher in the Rye” shares with its namesake the idea that even the most pain-in-the-ass,  unsympathetic adolescent male is still human, with emotions, wants and needs. Is it the responsibility of society, family and school to accommodate them or is it up to the individual? Kasher leaves the question open-ended, focusing on what worked for him, declining to speculate about what might work for others. One could argue that this book’s very existence, along with the reclaimed life of its author, shows that investing in troubled youth can pay off, no matter how long the odds may seem.

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.

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.

May 18, 2016

#110) Book review: “All Souls” by Michael Patrick MacDonald

I used to hate people like Michael MacDonald. Growing up, it always seemed as if I was intimidated or bullied by South Bostonians whenever I came into contact with them; they lived in a kill-or-be-killed world and despite my attempts to pass myself off as a bad-ass, every move I made screamed “sheltered kid from the ‘burbs.” Later, when I started playing music in bars, my genius went unappreciated by the drunken Southie masses. If you’d asked me when I moved to California in the summer of 1999 (which, unbeknownst to me then was when “All Souls” was published), I’d have said that I was as glad to leave the throngs of boorish, working class Bostonians behind as I was the cold Massachusetts winters. Time and distance changed my view toward Boston and Southie in particular. I learned to appreciate the opportunities I’d had that were denied to many, not the least of which was the chance to leave Boston when I’d had enough.

Michael MacDonald is the ninth of eleven children. On the first page of “All Souls” he says, “[W]e sometimes get confused about who’s dead and who’s alive in my family.” Indeed, the inside cover has a list of the names of MacDonald’s siblings, including the dates of their births and in four cases their deaths. The backbone of the family is Helen, better known as Ma, who leaves her abusive husband and raises the entire family on her own. Other characters include the often discussed but rarely seen gangster Whitey Bulger, charismatic but divisive politician “Dapper” O’Neill and South Boston itself, a place which one never truly leaves. “No matter how far I ran, Southie was always on my mind,” MacDonald says of the neighborhood which is by turns “the greatest place to grow up” and where he often found himself “sitting at the window, noticing…kids gathering…for the three-block journey up Dorchester Street to the funeral parlor.”

Attitudes that seem contradictory at first run through South Boston and “All Souls” but as we get to know MacDonald’s family, friends and enemies, the motivations become clearer. Those who wonder why poor whites often vote Republican can find answers in MacDonald’s Southie. Like Appalachia, Southie is largely populated by socially conservative and religious residents. Poverty has led to alcohol, drugs and crime. There is a strong distrust of outsiders and liberals are seen as meddlers who want to control, not help. “Liberals…never seemed to be able to fit urban poor whites into their world view, which tended to see blacks as the persistent dependent,” MacDonald notes. “After our violent response to court-ordered busing in the 1970s, Southie was labeled as the white racist oppressor….that label worked to take the blame away from those able to leave the city and drive back to all-white suburban towns at the end of the day.” MacDonald’s family “hated Ted Kennedy; he’d sided with the busing too and was seen as the biggest traitor of all.” Yet even as the Southie teenagers fought with the black students bused in from neighborhoods such as Roxbury, they found common ground in music such as “Fight the Power” by the Isley Brothers. “[N]o one called it black music…we couldn’t see what color anyone was from the radio…what mattered was that the Isley Brothers were singing about everything we were watching…” Besides, “Rock’n’roll was for rich suburban people with long hair and dirty clothes.”

In the end, a mix of ideologies saved what was left of the MacDonald family. Long dependent on welfare and public housing, the MacDonalds left South Boston when they realized that no politicians from either party had any serious interest in improving their neighborhood or fighting the influence of Whitey Bulger’s boys. Ma moved to Colorado with the youngest kids; MacDonald’s older siblings moved to different parts of New England.

For Michael, redemption didn’t come from “getting out” of Southie; it came from going back to Southie and reaching out of Southie. When crime victims in other impoverished Boston neighborhoods such as Roxbury, Charlestown and “Eastie” started speaking up both to outsiders and amongst themselves, it inspired MacDonald to get Southie residents to break their “code of silence.” “All Souls” starts and ends at a vigil for the victims on November 2, 1996 – All Souls day.

One could argue that the message of “All Souls” boils down to “Can’t we all just get along?” If so, the messenger is one who has seen the consequences of not getting along. The legacy of Michael MacDonald’s Southie upbringing is a man who is tough enough to not fight back and one who is strong enough to ask for help for himself and his community.

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.

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.

 

 

May 14, 2014

#77) Memoir autopsy: “Dogtown”

I don’t often give up on books – not even “In a Sunburned Country” – but after taking more than a month to get through only 75 pages or so of Elyssa East’s “Dogtown: Death and Enchantment in a New England Ghost Town” I realized that this one wasn’t going to happen.

“Dogtown” is not an over-hyped, “50-Shades of Gray”/”Oprah Book of the Month” situation.  This is a book I wanted to like.  I stumbled upon it at the library and it seemed to have all the elements that would make it a home run: a town (in my home state) with a haunted past, a brutal murder and a young woman searching for her purpose in life.  I felt more disappointed than angry when I threw in the towel on this one. In this age of the memoir, the unfulfilled promise of “Dogtown” holds some valuable lessons for writers and it is in that spirit that I present this post.  I can’t call it a review, having not finished the book, so I’ll call it an autopsy.  Look on the bright side – you know there will be no spoilers.

Dogtown is an abandoned settlement in Gloucester, Massachusetts, that fishing town north of Boston immortalized in “A Perfect Storm.”  Author Elyssa East – originally from Maine – learned of Dogtown from the work of Marsden Hartley, a troubled artist who was pretty much ready to walk away from painting when the ghost town gave him new inspiration.  In the late 1990s, East traveled there herself, learning details of a brutal murder that had taken place there in 1984.  Gloucester tends to be a magnet for transient types on the fringes of society and one such drifter, Peter Hodgkins, had a reputation as a misfit and loner and a record including indecent exposure and other charges of harassment.  As the town absorbed the shock of the murder, Hodgkins became a leading suspect.

So why doesn’t it work?

The main problem is that East fails to weave the various story lines – her own personal journey, Hartley, the history of Dogtown and the murder – in a compelling manner.  My critique of “Sunburned Country” notwithstanding, Bill Bryson is usually adroit not only at mixing personal narrative with local history but at making history entertaining.  East on the other hand tends to devote entire chapters to history, making it often feel like little more than lists of names and dates.  While she vividly conveys the violence of the murder without becoming melodramatic, she is unable to make Marsden Hartley seem like much more than a stereotypical tormented and misunderstood artist and her descriptions of Gloucester often have the feel of one of the textbooks I pretended to read in high school.

It’s also disappointing that we don’t get to better know East herself (at least if the first 75 pages are any indication.)  We are told that “[S]truggling in her own life, East set out to find the mysterious setting that had changed Hartley’s life, hoping that she too would find solace and renewal in Dogtown’s odd beauty.”  Yet she only describes her struggles in vague terms.  I give her props for not insisting on the spotlight, but she could have done more to make herself an engaging character.

Perhaps someone with a longer attention span than me–that is to say, most of the human race–might have slugged it out and learned the ultimate fates of Elyssa East, Peter Hodgkins and the other characters in the story.  In my defense this is the first book I’ve abandoned since my doomed attempt to read “Two Years Before the Mast” three years ago.  Maybe I’ll revisit this one down the road; maybe I’ll see the movie if it’s ever made.  For now, “Dogtown” sadly gets filed under unfinished business.

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.