Posts tagged ‘nonfiction’

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.



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.