Sunday, September 30, 2012

Barrel Fever

by David Sedaris

A collection of short fiction pieces – parodies, flights of fancy bordering on the absurd, and the blackest of black-humor riffs on dysfunctional families – followed by Sedaris’ debut and best-known memoir, “SantaLand Diaries,” and a few other humorous essays.

As a great fan of Sedaris, I’ve read all of his work, and enjoyed this book the least.  As a fiction writer, Sedaris makes a damn fine essayist; I found his stories to be either too fantastic to be meaningful (“Don’s Story,” in which an obnoxious unemployed man is fawned over by Hollywood, and everyone else, for no reason at all; “Parade,” in which an obnoxious man has a series of unlikely lovers, from Charleton Heston to Mike Tyson), or simply too grim to be funny (“The Last You’ll Hear From Me,” in which a woman plans to incite violence at her funeral, “Season’s Greetings,” a truly repulsive story in which a psychotic woman kills a baby by putting it in the dryer and tries to blame it on her husband’s Vietnamese war child; “Barrel Fever,” in which a man recalls his mother’s passive-aggressive nastiness, and defends his own obnoxious behavior when drinking).

Of course there’s humor to be found in dysfunction – it’s what Sedaris made his career out of – but in fiction, Sedaris treats his demons not as things to be deflated through observation, but as therapy.  “SantaLand Diaries,” which I’ve heard before, was fantastic, and the other essays, about smoking, being an apartment cleaner in New York, and writing for a kink magazine, were good as well, but they did not make up for the sour taste the stories left.  

two stars

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The Dharma Bums

by Jack Kerouac

Ray Smith (a stand-in for Kerouac himself), an itinerant poet, and his friend Japhy Ryder (Gary Snyder) search for an affirmative way of life in the mindless bustle of the modern era.  Preferring cabins and hiking to cities and desk jobs, the two live a Bohemian existence, getting drunk, bedding willing girls, and reciting haikus when inspiration strikes.  Parties that last days and involve casual nudity and sex (though Ray seems to be eschewing sex, or simply can’t get lucky), hitch-hiking, poetry readings, and hikes to Desolation Peak are funded by the occasional job as a fire watcher up in the mountains.  Along with other poets who live similar lives (every character is a pastiche of one of the figures in the Beat movement), they try to live a western version of Buddhism; they have differing ideas on how to live the dharma way, but call themselves equally bhikkhus (monks) and have good intentions. What they have in common is an inability to abide, or intense distaste for, the middle-class way of life in 1950s America.  Ray stays on his mother’s property and spends his nights meditating, derided as a bum by his brother-in-law; Japhy sets out for a lengthy retreat in Japan.

Primary to this soulful novel is an honest, exuberant search for a life full of meaning – not necessarily a stoic life or even one beyond material concerns, but a meaningful one.  Reading this novel at past forty, with my own insignificant flirtations with Buddhism, Zen, hitch-hiking and so on behind me, I’m not sure it has the power to move me.  It probably retains the power to inspire even this modern generation of starry-eyed college students, however, if they could get past the sometimes primitive attitudes toward women Kerouac seems to have had.  The novel is a little goofy and a bit slipshod in places (he accidentally calls Zaphy “Gary” once), but Ray is a charming, guileless character, and maintains a quiet assurance in the ability for a clear-eyed person to make his own truth.

three stars

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Known To Evil

by Walter Mosley

The second Leonid McGill crime novel.  Leonid McGill, still haunted by the guilt of the  bad things he used to do (or so he says, but the examples given of his supposed misdeeds seem very mild), is asked to track down a woman for “the most powerful man in New York.”  He is also consumed with helping out a former victim who has just been arrested on baseless terrorism charges, rescuing his son’s girlfriend from her violent pimp, and managing the tightrope between his loveless marriage and the women he beds.  As he puts himself in more and more danger for his son, his victim, and the missing girl, he unravels a strange story of corporate corruption.

I called the first McGill novel, The Long Fall, a mixed bag; this one is even less impressive, sadly (as I have enjoyed Mosley’s books before).  The plotlines are barren of drama, because the supporting characters aren’t fully developed, because McGill is too introspective and fearless for the reader to feel any tension when he is captured and worked over, and because finally the reasoning behind the various plots is so outlandish.  McGill moves in lush, wealthy circles as well as shady, underground ones, but the tone of the novel is so closed in by McGill’s constant ruminations, there’s little difference between the two.  The ending is awkward and poorly explained (the villain of the piece is, simply, “insane,” lacking any real motive), but even if it weren’t, the book would still be uninteresting.  Mosley writes good terse prose, but the world of McGill is rendered sadly cartoonish in its absolutes: McGill knows no fear, but constructs spy-worthy escape plots.  He has a target on his back painted by everyone from police captains to hired thugs, yet he snarls insults at everyone who threatens him, and never gets comeuppance, no matter how over-powered.  He is retired from the crime game, but keeps up with an extensive network of criminals and stone-cold killers who apparently owe him unwavering loyalty. He’s short and ugly, but women throw themselves at him.  And Mosley’s portrayal of the world of power is simply so cartoonish it’s absurd.  One crowning unintentionally funny moment comes when McGill gives a friend a “special 911 line” that is used by the ultra-rich, that brings a squad of SWAT agents coming double-time; I was reminded of Homer in “The Simpsons,” being told to use the “real” emergency number – 912 – when he is admitted to the world of the Stonecutters.

two stars

Saturday, September 15, 2012

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Stieg Larsson
translated by Reg Keeland

Mikael Blomkvist, a journalist for a progressive magazine who has just been convicted for libel, is hired by a wealthy businessman to find out what happened to his niece, Harriet Vanger, forty years ago.  Assumed long since to have been murdered, Harriet vanished from the town where her dysfunctional, eccentric family lived and worked; her uncle Henrik is convinced one of his family members did it.  Blomkvist takes the job reluctantly, seeing few options elsewhere; he is joined by tattooed, withdrawn hacker genius Lisbeth Salander, a freelance investigator who clearly is facing demons from her own past.  Together they uncover an evil that not only lurks within the family, as Henrik feared, but is still very much active.

This is an addictive page turner, with well-drawn, flawed characters who elicit sympathy by virtue of a stubborn desire to see justice done, as well as the sheer quality of being the underdog.  With a dozen or so suspects and a crime so long cold, the mystery gets a bit raveled, but Larsson shows Blomkvist’s careful reconstruction step by step, and it feels fairly natural that he should have uncovered something new after so much time.  On the other hand, Lisbeth’s hacker skills are treated a bit like magic – she gets everything they need, without any trouble; especially near the end when she helps wrap up the libel case, this is hard to swallow (a hunted man who deals in electronic funds would surely grow a bit more circumspect regarding his computer security?).  As for the main plot, it comes to a very satisfying (if easily guessed) conclusion – though this, too, has its flaws: the victim’s continued total silence on her tormentors seems improbable, given that Henrik might have been alerted with a single quick untraceable call assuring him all was well.  But despite these nitpicks, the book is engrossing and generally well-plotted.  Besides, as with most stories of this type, it’s the characters who matter, not so much the minutiae of the plot.  Worrying, womanizing Blomkvist, and sullent, taciturn, uncompromising Lisbeth, are the real draws of the book.

four stars

Monday, September 10, 2012

Trauma: My Life as an Emergency Surgeon

by James Cole

The author trained to be a surgeon in the Navy and worked with Special Operations and attached to a SEAL team, as well as working as a trauma surgeon in El Paso.  He describes his medical training, which took place in the days when interns were on call for mind-numbingly long hours, for days on end, or saw patients for an entire shift without a food or restroom breaks.  He discusses the details of operations to address gun shots, stabbings, motorcycle wrecks, attempted suicide by crossbow, and brutal beatings.  He also relates the grueling conditions under which he served as a surgeon in Iraq after 9/11.  Through it all, Cole muses on the human capacity for evil and for recovery; he also expounds on how the military and medicine have blessed him with the opportunities to do good, an expanded world view, and a sense of empathy.

It’s an interesting book to the layman; Cole does an admirable job of explaining the steps of various surgeries, though he can’t help but deluge the reader with medical jargon.  The book could have used a surer hand at the editorial wheel: Cole is prone to overblown phrases such as “sanguineous fluid” for “blood,” uses “so” as “very,” makes minor mistakes such as saying “no more painful than” when he means “no less painful than,” and litters commas without much thought as to their relations to clauses.   Absentee editorship aside, this is a very interesting book, a look into two worlds – that of intense life-saving surgery and that of the military – that the layman rarely sees so up close and personal.  Cole comes across as proud of his extensive and admirable accomplishments, as he should be, but his authorial voice is reined in, expansive, and empathetic as he provides candid insight into these worlds.  

four stars

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Created in Darkness by Troubled Americans: The Best of McSweeney's Humor Category

edited by Dave Eggers

A collection of brief humor pieces from the literary magazine and website, written mostly by unknowns and showcasing its erudite, absurdist slant.  As with any florilegium such as this, it’s a hit and miss collection.  The relatively lengthy piece explaining that the Supreme Court’s decisions are actually arrived at through basketball games played by the justices is far too overblown and tedious; I found Neal Pollack’s nonsensical “Trinity” to be the least funny thing that ever attempted to be funny.  Mostly the value in this collection is in the ultra-short, dry pieces that approach pop culture straight-faced, as if it were academia, such as “Pop Quiz,” in which the narrator cluelessly answers song titles that are questions (“Why Do Fools Fall In Love?” – “they have lower standards”), or the interviews with Goofus and Gallant’s friends and co-workers to explain what “pushed Gallant over the edge.”  Fun, quick reading, non-essential but worth dipping into.

three stars