Posts tagged ‘writing’

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.

 

 

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.

January 2, 2017

#122) Language court 2017: the D-Theory verdicts on the LSSU 42nd annual list of banished words

on-fleek

(Well, are you?)

New Years Day means different things to different people. For some folks, it’s the first day without alcohol, tobacco or child pornography. For others, it’s the day they have to start remembering to write a new number in the “date” field on their personal checks. For nerds such as the court, by which I mean myself, it’s the release of Lake Superior State University’s eagerly awaited list of words and expressions that are “banished from the Queen’s English for misuse, overuse and general uselessness.” I often find vindication in seeing phrases that annoy the estrogen out of me singled out on these lists (surely I can’t be the only one who wants to sack-tap anyone who says ‘curated’ – from the 2015 list – or ‘break the internet’ from 2016) and I’ve even gone so far as to make my own (after the response I got, I decided it would be better to let LSSU do the dirty work).

In that spirit, I ask that you dock your selfie drone and focus on this historic town hall meeting in the echo chamber as we guesstimate how many of the 831 items on Lake Superior State University’s 42nd annual listicle of banished words are true bete noires and how many are mere simply post-truths.

YOU, SIR

Charges: “Hails from a far more civilized era when duels were the likely outcome of disagreements.”

Verdict: Not guilty. The court has found that while those who use this expression tend to think they are more droll than they actually are, it is not ubiquitous enough to warrant punishment.

FOCUS

Charges: “Overused when concentrate and look at would be fine.”

Verdict: Not guilty. The court finds that when looked at in the context of….ooh, shiny!

BETE NOIRE

Charges: Being a pretentious synonym for “pet peeve.”

Verdict: Not guilty; the prosecution didn’t even seem to care that much about this one. Note: the court apologizes for not being able to figure out how to create the accent circumflex that goes over the first “e” in “bete” in the WordPress platform.

TOWN HALL MEETING

Charges: Being a misnomer (“Candidates seldom debate in town halls anymore.”)

Verdict: Not guilty; given the election cycle we just witnessed, what we call our debates is the least of our problems.

POST-TRUTH

Charges: Being a trendy way of describing how politicians and others have been able to get people to ignore facts.

Verdict: Guilty. Just as Capone’s tax evasion and O.J.’s memorabilia hijinks stood in for more significant crimes, we are happy to set up “post-truth” as a fall guy for all of the other annoying “post-” expressions that inundate pop culture: “post-punk”, “post-hardcore”, “post-Sasha Fierce”, “post-Freddy Got Fingered” et. al.

GUESSTIMATE

Charges: Overuse

Verdict: Not guilty. The court finds that prosecuting this chronic low-level offender will be more trouble than it’s worth.

831

Charges: Shorthand for “I love you” – 8 letters, 3 words, 1 meaning. “Never encrypt or abbreviate one’s  love.”

Verdict: Not guilty. If this one survives until 2018, it will only be from hipsters using it ironically, which may prompt the case to be reopened.

HISTORIC

Charges: Being “thrown around far too much.”

Verdict: Guilty. The court hopes that this verdict serves to inspire those in attendance to avoid hyperbole and find more creative adjectives.

MANICURED

Charges: Overuse

Verdict: Not guilty. The word does have a sort of real-estate-salesman-y feel to it but has not been overused to the point of being divorced from its original meaning.

ECHO CHAMBER

Charges: Overuse

Verdict: Not guilty (for now). Like its accomplice “confirmation bias” this is a reasonably concise way of describing a clearly valid concept.

ON FLEEK

Charges: “Needs to return to its genesis: perfectly groomed eyebrows.”

Verdict: Guilty. The fact that as a society we find eyebrows important enough to nickname is bad enough; worse is that this phrase is already on track to become inescapable and will cause adults to embarrass themselves when using it in the name of hipness, such as Taco Bell CEO Brian Niccol.

BIGLY

Charges: Being used by Donald Trump

Verdict: Not guilty. This is the aspect of the pending Trump presidency that we’re going to get upset about?

GHOST

Charges: Being slang for abruptly ending communication, especially on social media

Verdict: Not guilty. Even the prosecution has its doubt: “Is it rejection angst, or is this word really as overused as word-banishment nominators contend?”

DADBOD

Charges: “Empowering dads to pursue a sedentary lifestyle.”

Verdict: Guilty. This word (“the flabby opposite of a chiseled male ideal”) isn’t the one who actually robbed the bank; it was just slower than the ring leader (“dad joke”) in running to escape the word police after the alarm was tripped.

LISTICLE

Charges: A portmanteau of “list” and “article.”

Verdict: Not guilty. The problem is the item itself, not what we call it.

“GET YOUR DANDRUFF UP…”

Charges: Unknown.

Verdict: Not guilty.

SELFIE DRONE

Charges: Breaking new ground in selfies by tasking a drone to enable new angles (“How can this end badly?”)

Verdict: Not guilty. As with “Listicle” there is a difference between a truly annoying, overused expression and simply naming something that shouldn’t exist in the first place.

FRANKENFRUIT

Charges: Being “another food group co-opted by ‘frankenfood’.”

Verdict: Guilty. People have a right to get their dandruff up about genetically modified organisms, but words such as “frankenfruit” that are intended to scare people into ortheorexia nervosa instead might scare some of them straight to McDonald’s.

DISRUPTION

Charges: This classic Van Halen guitar solo is charged with inspiring would-be guitarists at music stores across the country to butcher it while trying out instruments, thus making a…oh, sorry, I thought you said “Eruption.” “Disruption” is charged with “bumping into other over-used synonyms for change.”

Verdict: Not guilty. There can never be enough synonyms for “change.”

As for “that/those/dat ____, tho”, “I’m just going to leave this here” and “[no words]”: consider this a warning.

What say you, sir?

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 30, 2016

#112) How not to complain #5: Condescension and condiments (an open letter to Sara Benincasa)

Note: the original article this post references was updated in October, 2016 to be more Trump specific. The previous version of the article focused more on the Republican party in general than Trump.

Dear Ms. Benincasa,

First, the good stuff: your recent article wouldn’t have struck a nerve with me if you hadn’t done something right. Like the other previous four subjects of my How Not To Complain series, you show potential in this timeless art form. Sometimes the boat needs to be rocked; sometimes we need to be douchebags, especially in the current political climate. When all of the douchecockery has been meted out however, has the opinion of your mark changed? For your incisive and witty deconstruction of voters who are motivated by “ego and need to talk about stuff at your organic locally grown dinner parties for the next four years”, come November, my vote will still be cast for one Gary E. Johnson, unless a porn star comes out of the woodwork an announces her candidacy.

Why did you fail to convince me? The C-word. Not that C-word; it’s condescension. Sometimes condescension is not only necessary; it can be highly entertaining. I’ve watched the video of Baylor basketball player Taurean Prince’s explanation of how his team got out-rebounded by Yale almost as much as Miss Teen South Carolina and “Asians in the Library” combined. Condescension resembles another C-word: condiments. Condiments can make a burger, hot dog or Amish-made soft pretzel taste great – but 1) they can’t mask lack of quality in the burger/dog/pretzel itself and 2) when they are used in excess, the main course itself is lost.

You start off with a promising main course: a new slant on a line we’ve heard before. “Don’t throw your vote away because [of] your ego and ‘personal brand'”, you say. “I get it if it makes you feel really good personally and like a great liberal with super awesome true blue standards to vote for Bernie and support Bernie. But when Hillary gets the nomination, and she will, it is imperative to vote for the Democrat because the DNC platform is vastly superior to the GOP values.”

Indeed, the villain of your piece isn’t so much Trump, whose name is mentioned only a few times in passing (and has shown himself to be just as much of an enemy of the Republican establishment as of the Dems), as it is the GOP itself. I’ll grant you that Republicans have not exactly distinguished itself over the last dec..quar..half centu…well, it’s been a while. I don’t, however, believe that the difference between the two parties is so big that “people… would suffer terribly under a GOP presidency and the Supreme Court for the next 10 to 40 years.”

The protein of your main course, your argument against Republican policy, consists of two examples: “No Child Left Behind” and abstinence-only education. We’re on the same page here: those were both turds. Rip Torn has a good phrase to describe abstinence only education; it also applies to NCLB. However, laughable as it is, has abstinence-only education truly “made people suffer?” Are Race to the Top and Common Core a drastic improvement over NCLB? Was American education the envy of the world during the Bill Clinton presidency?

Once those two examples are given, the rest of the dish is filled out by lines that are quotable and likely to get those who already agree with your arguments to nod vigorously but not likely to convert anyone to your point of view. “You’d consign us to 4 years of Trump and two or three decades of a disgusting, vile Supreme Court because you have a sad feelz in your tum-tum?” you ask. Fair enough, but your claim that my not voting for Clinton would be “an insult to me and women and queer folks and all the people who benefit and even have a chance to thrive under Democratic policies” just isn’t enough of a deterrent to stop me from pulling the lever for Johnson/Weld. The sad feelz I have in my tum-tum is hunger. The condiments, while tasty and original, weren’t enough to carry the dish.

 

 

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.

January 4, 2016

#105) Language court 2016: the D-Theory verdicts on LSSU’s newly banished words

So, it looks like this conversation about manspreading is going to break the internet unless we walk it back to before the stakeholders held their presser.

It’s that time of year when language geeks such as myself peruse the various lists of words and phrases that are nominated for banishment. Though many such lists exist, the one published by Lake Superior State University tends to carry the most weight. Like many people, I have made resolutions to be more productive and make greater contributions to society in 2016 and if running down my own personal verdicts on these words doesn’t contribute to society, then slap my ass and sign me up for the Peace Corps. D-Theory Language Court is now in session, the honorable judge D-Lock presiding.

SO

Charges: Peter Gabriel’s fifth solo record is charged with containing the track “In Your Eyes”, thus making people forget about “Games Without Frontiers” and “Family Snap…” Oh, wait, what’s that? Wrong “So?” My bad. “So” is charged with “…Being overused as the first word in the answer to ANY question.”

Verdict: Guilty.

CONVERSATION

Charges: Being a bland, non-offensive, non-specific alternative to words such as “debate”, “discourse” and “argument.”

Verdict: Guilty. To the above mentioned charges, the court adds, “Making a company look desperate when they ask customers/viewers/readers to ‘join the conversation.'”

PROBLEMATIC

Charges: Being a “corporate-academic weasel word.”

Verdict: Not guilty. It does tend to get overused, but what’s the word that we should use instead? Cunty?

STAKEHOLDER

Charges: Being over-used in business to describe customers and others.

Verdict: Not guilty. Yes, it may be a word that folks simply use to sound smart and important, but the court has not found it to be as ubiquitous as some claim.

PRICE POINT

Charges: Using two words when one will do.

Verdict: Guilty. It has a connotation among those who use it that the product is somehow superior.

SECRET SAUCE

Charges: Being a metaphor for success based on the fast food industry.

Verdict: Guilty. If you brag about something, it’s no longer a secret.

BREAK THE INTERNET

Charges: Being hyperbole about the latest controversy that is already becoming trite.

Verdict: Guilty. The court adds the charge of begetting the equally annoying tendency to force the verb “Win” into situations where it doesn’t belong (“Win the internet”; “Win Yom Kippur.”)

WALK IT BACK

Charges: Being an unnecessary synonym for “Back pedal.”

Verdict: Not guilty. The prosecution has the burden of proof and failed to provide any meaningful evidence.

PRESSER

Charges: Being an unnecessarily trendy term for “Press release” or “Press conference.”

Verdict: Not guilty. The court sees this word as a minor offender which will soon slip from popular use.

MANSPREADING

Charges: Being a term for taking up too much room on a subway or bus.

Verdict: Not guilty. As the LSSU prosecution team itself notes, the term is mainly “familiar to those in bigger cities, where seats on the bus or subway are sometimes difficult to find.” Thus, the term is unlikely to infect those in rural areas or places like Los Angeles where one tends not to use public transportation.

VAPE

Charges: Describing the act of “smoking” E-cigarettes.

Verdict: Not guilty. As long as E-cigarettes exist, some word will be necessary to describe the act of using them. We can let “Vape” serve that purpose until something better comes along.

GIVING ME LIFE

Charges: Being an over-used phrase for “making me laugh.”

Verdict: Guilty. Perhaps it’s not as ubiquitous as “Break the internet”, but it still is overwrought.

PHYSICALITY

Charges: Being over-used by sports broadcasters and writers.

Verdict: Not guilty. When you get tired of broadcasters who talk simply to hear the sound of their own voice, remember that your remote control has a “mute” button.

Those who are curious can check out this blog’s verdicts on the 2015 LSSU list.

What say you?

November 30, 2015

#101) How not to complain #3: Noah Henry

Dear Mr. Henry,

First things first: I’m on your team. As a musician myself I couldn’t agree more with the basic premise of your recent article on Mandatory, “11 Reasons Music Sucks Now Worse Than Ever”. As someone who has been complaining about virtually everything for longer than you’ve been alive, however, I have a few suggestions.

You see, as enjoyable an activity as complaining is, it’s all the more rewarding when you get some sort of result for your efforts. My goal is to take your inherent love of music and your disdain for today’s climate and help you turn these feelings into something that may inspire action for your readers.

CITATIONS NEEDED

Right off the bat, you claim that “it’s been…proven that repeated exposure to a song makes you like it more.” Where? In my experience, it’s been the exact opposite: 25 years ago I listened to “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Hotel California” in complete reverence; now I instantly turn the station when I hear a single sixteenth note. I’d also like to see a link to the Scientific American article you quote at the end of your piece.

CHOOSE YOUR STATS WISELY

There’s no such thing as agenda-free statistics; numbers can always be curated to suit the purpose of the curator. Yours don’t really tell a story. For example, so what that Zeppelin hasn’t had a number one hit and Rihanna has had 13? Apples and oranges. Michael Jordan never threw a touchdown pass; Ghandi was never voted People’s Sexiest Man Alive.

DON’T PREACH TO THE CHOIR

If all you do is get people who already agree with you to continue agreeing with you, you haven’t gained any ground. Yes, “the Billboard 100 is full of idiots, morons and losers.” Yes, “focus groups rule the artist.” Yes, “Everything is safe and easily digestible like baby food.” The indie songwriter reading this on a laptop connected to the internet via the neighbor’s wifi feels you, but your audience will be limited unless you are willing to reach across enemy lines. Most Taylor Swift fans are going to check out of itemized rants about how much she sucks after the first bullet point.

I’LL SEE YOUR ANGRY YOUNG MAN AND RAISE YOU A GRUMPIER OLD ONE

Long all you like for the days of Everclear, Third Eye Blind, the Wallflowers and Sugar Ray and the other bands that represent your good ol’ days of music; to me, they’re really not that different from Fun, Maroon 5 and Coldplay. (Okay, I guess Coldplay really are in a class by themselves when it comes to suck.) Today’s young Turk is tomorrow’s “Kids these days…” guy; in 30 years, graying millenials will wonder what the hell mid 21st century young’ns see in whatever tops the 2045 Billboard Hot 100. It’s hard to control peoples’ opinions. Respecting theirs, however inane they may seem, is the best way to be heard yourself. Sometimes people just need time to outgrow stuff.

WHAT DO WE DO?

Like Lynn Shepherd, the author whose JK Rowling rant backfired, you don’t seem to have a clear result you’d like to see. For example, what are the bands we should be listening to instead of the truffle butter (see what I did) that’s out there? In fact you explicitly bypass the issue, working in a potshot at hipsters in the process (say what you will about them, at least they’re at every crafts fair from Silver Lake to Brooklyn supporting their favorite cajon, ukulele and didgeridoo dubstep trio). Should we boycott Justin Bieber? Burn Adele pictures in effigy? Send our local radio stations vinyl copies of “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” to play instead of the latest offering from Ke$ha?

I know you mean well; you obviously care about music and I appreciate that. I hope that you’re able to find ways to get your message across that are inspiring, actionable and maybe just a little humorous. (Your opening line about only slitting your wrists three times while listening to the new Selena Gomez album is a good start; you may want to check out Axis of Awesome’s “Four Chords” video for more ideas.) Nothing gets done if someone doesn’t kvetch about it and with a little fine tuning, I believe you will soon be complaining with the best of them.

All the best

David Lockeretz