08 May 2011

Weekly Book Review: Tarzan series, "Bossypants," "The Botany of Desire," Into the Wild," "A Million Little Pieces," "Interstellar Pig," "Infidel," and "I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell."

Tarzan series: Tarzan of the Apes, Return of Tarzan, Son of Tarzan, Beasts of Tarzan, Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar, Edgar Rice Burroughs

I wrote last time about the other major Burroughs series, the Barsoom/John Carter series. This time, I will talk about the Tarzan series, which I also reread and which was also deeply influential on me as a boy.

Tarzan is the more popular character these days, having been adapted numerous times and holding a continuing cultural cachet. Everyone knows Tarzan and his story, even if it's just from the Disney animated adaptation: a guy is raised by apes and falls in love with a civilized girl. It's a great story and speaks to everyone, perhaps because it's so archetypical - Dionysian and Apollonian, Animus and Anima, etc.

Tarzan is the true son of the Lord Greystoke, who was abandoned in Africa along with his pregnant wife. When his parents die, Tarzan is adopted by an ape. Burroughs gives the apes (or "Mangani" in their tongue) and other animals of the forest a realistic-seeming and interesting society, which acknowledges what was known about the natural world at the time while still developing an animal language, culture, and rituals. As Tarzan grows (slowly compared to his ape-cousins!) he has fights with his stepfather and the leader of the ape-clan, and participates in the Dum-Dum, a savage pseudo-religious ritual of the apes. Tarzan is a man-animal, and he hunts and kills.

Eventually he meets Jane in the woods, and rescues her from repeated dangers. He has fantastic adventures, finding a fortune in gold in the lost city of Opar and working as a spy for France.  He becomes integrated into society, and lives on a manor estate in England and serves in the House of Lords. Jane won't live in the woods with him, you see.

The first two books are excellent, relating the above events with the snappy thrills of Burroughs at his best. And they end with a solid crescendo, with a fierce climax that is immensely satisfying.

After those two, however, there are still more than a dozen other Tarzan books. I don't know if it was a matter of money or just the lure of continuing a hit he'd loved, but Burroughs kept writing the man-ape. Tarzan's wife or son get kidnapped and he has to go rescue them. He loses his memory over and over again, and has to slowly remember his identity. There is a dire threat to someone from his past, and he has to go rescue them. And every time, it becomes necessary for him to discard his hat and coat and don his loincloth, diving into the jungle.

I don't think Tarzan taught me anything or made me aspire to anything, unlike my emulation of John Carter of Mars. Don't look for lessons (if anything, avoid them, since Tarzan can be an ass).  But they're rollicking good fun adventure stories, now badly tinged with the racism and sexism of the time. I recommend reading the first two books (Tarzan of the Apes and Return of Tarzan) and no further - those two are stories of high adventure that everyone can enjoy.

Bossypants, Tina Fey

Tina Fey is very smart and very funny, and sometimes she is a good writer. This book is a combination memoir/advice book, with the story of her life to date combined with some joking tips for women bosses. The former part of the book is very good - witty and light and honest - but it slumps badly near the end.

Fey recounts her childhood and describes her family with cleverness and a fondness that leaps off the page. Her father, in particular, receives a chapter of unstinting adulation that's delivered with enough humor so as to remain interesting. She had some rough spots - when she was in kindergarten a stranger slashed her face with a knife - but she bounced back from them and recounts them with good-natured self-deprecation. One example of her first day in school:

While my parents talked to the teacher, I was sent to a table to do coloring. I was introduced to a Greek boy named Alex whose mom was next in line to meet with the teacher. We colored together in silence. I was so used to being praised and encouraged that when I finished my drawing I held it up to show Alex, who immediately ripped it in half. I didn’t have the language to express my feelings then, but my thoughts were something like “Oh, it’s like that, motherfucker? Got it.” Mrs. Fey’s change-of-life baby had entered the real world.

It starts to go downhill as she approaches the current time and her position as a star (thanks to her Sarah Palin imitation and her television show 30 Rock). Maybe it's the loss of perspective from these things being too recent, or maybe she just ran out of good jokes, but the latter portion of the book becomes dull. Her fake advice thuds on the reader without the wry lightness of the story of her life, and we have to listen to her defensive explanation of making fun of Sarah Palin (she didn't think it would be such a big deal, she wasn't being mean, etc.)

It seems as though perhaps just not enough time has passed for Fey's bitterness about recent events to be tempered with the irony that makes the the first half of the book so hilarious. When she talks about breastfeeding, for example, she just seems angry:

I was defensive and grouchy whenever the topic came up. At a party with a friend who was successfully nursing her little boy, I watched her husband produce a bottle of pumped breast milk that was the size of a Big Gulp. It was more milk than I had produced in my whole seven weeks—I blame Entourage. As my friend’s husband fed the baby, he said offhandedly, “This stuff is liquid gold. You know it actually makes them smarter?” “Let’s set a date!” I screamed. “IQ test. Five years from today. My formula baby will crush your baby!” Thankfully, my mouth was so full of cake they could not understand me

Bossypants is certainly worth reading for the first half of the book alone, and the second half of it is really not so bad - except when compared with the hilarious first part. You should check it out, and I'll just hope that in ten years she issues a revised edition.

The Botany of Desire, Michael Pollan

I'm not sure Michael Pollan can go to the grocery store without coming home with another book about food. Following up the marvelous blockbuster The Omnivore's Dilemma, the pretty good In Defense of Food, and the mediocre Food Rules, he has released The Botany of Desire, an exploration of the reciprocal relationship between mankind's needs and four plants: the apple, the tulip, cannabis, the potato. Like his previous books, it's really a set of essays woven together afterward; the apple chapter is mostly the history of Johnny Appleseed, the tulip chapter is mostly about the Dutch tulip craze, and the potato chapter is mostly an exploration of Monsanto's genetic technology. Only the cannabis chapter (and to a lesser extent the potato) chapter is really fully on his ostensible topic: how plants change us as we change them. But this is a good book, and his method works.

Most of his conclusions are the same as he has reached before: industrialization of our food supply is at best a mixed blessing, and will continue to hurt us as it has before.  The more specific lessons can be summed up:

  • Much of what made the apple amazing has been lost in the all-smothering embrace of the Red Delicious.
  • Food isn't a pure commodity and trying to treat it like one leads to disaster.
  • Monsanto is evil (no news there).
  • The potato famine of Ireland was the first in a long series of monoculture-related accidents that have continued to the present day (just ask the banana).

It's informative, written with adequate skill and excellent research, and says things that need to be said.  And pleasantly enough, it's also very readable.  Check it out.

Into the Wild, Jon Krakaeur

In April of 1992, Christopher McCandless walked into the woods of Alaska. He never walked out.

McCandless had been on the road for two years since he graduated college, hitchhiking around the country under the name Alexander Supertramp. Disgusted with the modern world and embittered about his parents, he had been trying to find meaning in his life.

In some ways, he was a pretty standard suburban kid - he had serious issues with his family, he was convinced that all of society was corrupt and that he could find a better way, and he took the books that he loved into his heart wholesale. He indulged in big, sweeping gestures such as burning his few remaining dollars after donating the bulk of an inheritance to Oxfam. From accounts of those who knew him, he was equal parts pleasant and arrogant, clever and judgmental. He was a lot like many middle-class suburban teens.

But he was also extraordinary. McCandless launched himself into life with huge courage and dedication. He thought he saw a better way to live, and for better or worse, he tried to seize it. That's something that few people ever do.

Jon Krakaeur's book about McCandless provides a subtle and understanding portrait of the young man who died chasing a dream of happiness. The writing is measured and calm, but in its quietness there is sometimes a depth of feeling that can be seriously affecting. He doesn't make McCandless into a hero, but neither does he make him into a fool. We are given the story of a whole person, complex and raw. It is excellent.

There's a danger in romanticizing him. In a lot of ways, McCandless was a stupid kid. He knew almost nothing about wilderness survival, despite his plans to try to live off the land. He was unprepared in almost every way, having insufficient emergency food, a regional map of Alaska, or really even the barest necessary knowledge. He hurt his parents and sister terribly when he began tramping, simply disappearing. He was young and arrogant and stupid.

There's also a danger in rejecting what he stood for. He read Thoreau and Tolstoy and London, and had ideas and hopes. And he lunged for them with a full heart. It's not something to dismiss outright.

The book is very good, and you should read it. Think about how you feel about a stupid kid with a big dream - it's worth considering.

A Million Little Pieces, James Frey

I don't think I would have read this if it wasn't famous. That sounds low, but it's true. A Million Little Pieces was first famous as a deeply moving personal memoir of addiction and recovery, and then famous for being at least partially fabricated.

Before I address those issues, though, I want to talk about the book itself.

It's written in a fairly personal and self-conscious style, the sort of style that goes well with memoirs. The capitalization is idiosyncratic, with Important Words receiving the treatment (like "Criminal" or "Person"). Frey omitted certain elements of punctuation as well, a move that in this era unavoidably raises comparisons with Cormac McCarthy. The simple structure of the book, which follows a generally straightforward format of strings of statements, has been called an attempt to imitate Hemingway. This is possible, but unlikely - it might be more fair to say that Hemingway's terse tight writing was an inspiration here.

There are some good points to the writing. Some sections of the book read like real and raw testimony from someone who has been there, with a clear feeling of truth-telling running through the gut-wrenching details of an addict's descent and suffering. It's hard to tell where this verisimilitude comes from, since I'm certainly not one to judge the authenticity of an account of crack addiction, but a large part of it must derive from the humiliating thoroughness of some of the accounts.

Unfortunately, these moments of testimony become less and less common as the memoir continues. Frey's authorial voice - the man as a writer and not the man as an autobiographer - intrudes into the narrative, and the shift in tone is obvious and frustrating. Frey doesn't believe in Alcoholics Anonymous and has contempt for much of their ideology. Frey does believe in himself. These two agendas inform his intrusions. Here's an example, when Frey is in recovery and gets a copy of the AA Big Book.

I read the rest of the book, which is mostly about the Twelve Steps. There are chapters with titles like There Is a Solution, How It Works, Into Action, and Vision for You. It is all very simple. If you do what the book says, you will be cured. If you follow their righteous path, that path will lead you straight to redemption. If you join the club, you're the lucky winner of a lifelong supply of bullshit Meetings full of whining, complaining and blaming. Praise Be the Glory. I want to get down on my knees. Praise Be the Glory Hallelujah. Near the end, there is a section of testimonials. There is one by a Dentist, one by a European Drinker, one by a Salesman, one by an Educated Agnostic. They win all Alcoholic disasters, they all found God, they all started dancing the Twelve Step, they all got better. As with most testimonials like this that I've read or heard or been forced to endure, something about them strikes me as weak, hollow and empty. Though the people in them are no longer drinking and doing drugs, they're still living with the obsession. Though they have achieved sobriety, their lives are based on the avoidance, discussion and vilification of the chemicals they once needed and loved.

I'm not saying that his criticisms are not valid or reasonable, of course. There is a lot of complaint to be made about AA as the sole legitimated source of recovery in America. But in terms of the writing, these insertions are clumsy and off-putting. Yes, James Frey, we understand that you think AA is stupid... now we're just waiting patiently to return to your goddamn story.

But worse than these awkward intrusions is the self-promotion. It's an odd kind of self-promotion, but it is certainly all about his ego.

Frey mocks one character in the story for blatantly fabricating his misdeeds:

When he talks of amounts of drugs, Matty laughs and says he should have asked for more. Bobby then corrects himself and says that he actually did get more. When he talks of women, Ed tells him that four at a time isn't that a big deal and Bobby says the next time he had eight. He mentions crack and the amounts of it he claims to smoke and Ted asks him what it feels like, that he has always wanted to try it. Bobby says that it feels like really strong weed.

And this is an interesting bit, because as far as I can tell, Frey is doing the same thing. Regardless of whether or not he tells the truth about his exploits, Frey makes it seem like it is very important that we perceive that he is the Worst Person and yet he is also the Strongest Person.

There are multiple litanies of his wrongs. One sample, from when he takes a Personal Inventory:

Drank smoked got arrested doled out a beating or two took a beating or two cheated lied deceived used women slept with prostitutes took more money wasted more money my best friends were drugs and alcohol those who tried to stop me were told to fuck off and leave me alone. I made a Girl snort lines off my dick. She was a cocaine Addict and I traded drugs for her body. She let me do whatever I wanted and I did too much too often. Drugs and her body. I held a gun to a man's head. It was an unloaded gun but he didn't know it was unloaded. He was on his knees begging for his life. I did it for a drug Dealer who wanted to test me and I needed his trust because I needed his drugs. The man had stolen from the Dealer I pulled the trigger of the unloaded gun the man pissed in his pants and pissed on the floor. The Dealer rubbed his face in it and I watched.

The reason he needs us to know how bad he was and how addicted he was, I think, is because Frey also wants to up the drama of his recovery. He disdains AA and simply wills himself not to be addicted anymore. As he describes it, "Every time I want to drink or do drugs, I'm going to make the decision not to do them. I'll keep making that decision until it's no longer a decision, but a way of life."

This might be a way to fight addiction. From everything I have heard (and everything Frey says) it is also much harder than AA. I don't really know much about it, but I do know that Frey depicts it as being heroically difficult - thus, he must be a hero. Everyone he meets thinks he is extraordinary: the counselor at the recovery center tells him, "[Y]ou are the single most stubborn Person I ever met." I find that hard to believe, given that from what I know of recovery centers, there are a hell of a lot of people who steadfastly and unwaveringly refuse to follow advice in the same way that Frey does.

But this is what it seems to be about: Frey has to be the worst and then the best. We have to be astonished at the horrific depths of his descent, and then exalt in the dramatic reversal of his recovery. It's obvious and annoying.

The big deal about the book, of course, is that it is partially falsified. In a significant way, it is fiction masquerading as memoir.

The Smoking Gun broke the news in a huge way with its expose, A Million Little Lies. Almost all of the details about crimes that Frey committed, it seems, are magnificently exaggerated. This was a shock to Oprah, who had been promoting the book for a long time and thought it was an important work about addiction and a life of crime. But Frey never spent more than a few hours in jail, despite his claims of multiple stays. He was never "wanted in three states," as he asserts several times in his book (his characteristic grudging gloating is dragged out of him by other characters, of course). Virtually everything verifiable in the book has been wildly exaggerated, so we have to look with skepticism on the unverifiable claims. They conveniently glorify Frey at every turn, and he's lost the benefit of the doubt.

Some people have asked if this matters - is it important that he lied about these things, if it's still a good story? But it does matter.

A memoir is written from personal experience. When someone like Frey writes about the horrors of addiction and the difficulty of recovery, or about the depths of crime and shortcomings of the institutional system, their voice has a special validity and power because it is true.

This is particularly the case when we're talking about a story of addiction, and about someone's recovery. Imagine if Frey had claimed he had a different mental illness than drug addiction - let's say he had severe paranoid schizophrenia. And he tells a story of how he bucked the system of therapy and medication endorsed by the medical establishment, and just chose not to have schizophrenia. He faced his paranoia and made a choice every day, he might say, and willed it away. If it was a true story, then it means something. A schizophrenic might read that and go off his medication - It makes me dulled out all the time, and if he did it, I can do it.

I guess neither addicts or schizophrenics should be making those decisions based on memoirs like these, but they do. And other people do, because a memoir writer is speaking with the voice of experience and with the authority that comes from that experience.

It's a terrible trust to betray, especially just to sell a book that is so badly written that it would never have been published otherwise. Avoid this book.

Interstellar Pig, William Sleator

William Sleator was one of my wife's favorite authors when she was young, and this was one of her favorite books. After reading it, I can easily see why.

Interstellar Pig is about a boy who meets some aliens and plays some games of wits with them. The writing is of a low level, but of the pleasantly simple variety intended for children: it's clear and sufficient, with interesting - though suitably simple - allegories and imagery. There are plot twists, and while they're easy to see through, I can understand how fascinating and clever they must have been for a child. There's space travel, immortality, high-tech weapons, and a great deal of intrigue.

I would recommend this book to any child, and even to an adult who wants to pass a quiet and pleasant hour with something interesting and not too challenging.

Infidel, Ayaan Hirsi Ali

While I don't think I am exceptionally well-traveled, I do think I've seen a bit of the world and have heard about a lot more. But sometimes a book comes along like Infidel that introduces me to a whole world beyond what I had ever considered.

It's not that Ali grew up in some hidden country - I knew about Somalia, Kenya, Saudi Arabia, and the Netherlands. And the facts of her life are not foreign to my knowledge; I was already aware of fundamentalist Islam, female genital mutilation, child abuse, arranged marriages, and civil war. But knowing of these places and knowing of these facts are different from hearing about them as part of a life.

Ali came to the attention of her new country of the Netherlands when she began to speak out against fundamentalist Islam's effects on the immigrant groups within Dutch borders. Having experienced what she felt to be the brutalizing aspects of a Muslim upbringing, she was moved to speak out against the good-natured efforts at tolerance that were permitting a whole generation to grow up in secluded subcultures. Catapulted into fame by her near-unique position as an eloquent and outspoken Dutch Muslim woman, she was tapped to be a member of their parliament.

While this made her famous in the Netherlands, Ayaan Hirsi Ali only became world famous when she made a film about the dangers of Islam with Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh - and he was murdered by a fanatic who shot him several times, cut his throat, and used a knife to pin on his chest a note threatening Ali. She went into hiding.

Translated from the Dutch, the book is moderately-well written, with its utilitarian economy well-suited for her tale of horror and triumph. When she describes how she would be tied up and beaten, or how she had her nose broken by an over-enthusiastic mullah, or the horrific practice of excision on young girls - maybe here her sparse detail helps protect the reader. As it is, it is terrible enough and I had to clench my jaw at some of the grim parts of the story.

Infidel is about Ali's life as the daughter of an opposition figure in Somalia, a position that along with the clan war forced her and her family to move when she was young from country to country, sometimes in comfort and sometimes in poverty. She was beaten regularly, when she disobeyed or when her proud and bitter mother was frustrated. She was mutilated and humiliated, treated like property at every turn. Still she found her way to education, doing well in schools and devouring books. It was those books and their vision of a larger world that would give her the vision and courage to escape when the time came and she was married off to a stranger. Fleeing to the Netherlands, she found a new free life in the West - although it didn't get much easier, as she found out when she started to speak her mind.

This is an excellent book. It raises uncomfortable questions about tolerance in our society; what level of oppression are we willing to countenance in the name of free exercise of religion? Both for its thought-provoking sentiments and the simple drama of Ali's life, you should read this.

I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell, Tucker Max

Tucker Max is repellent, and a self-proclaimed asshole. This book, a collection of his stories of drunken carousing, are blisteringly misogynistic and disgusting. You can get a sampling for yourself on his website. I beg of you: do not give him money and buy this book.

The stories are not particularly funny - about the equivalent of the bragging of any number of people you may have known in college. Just think about the last time you heard someone start a long story with "this one time I was so drunk" and you will have about the gist of it. The sole redeeming feature is that he is not entirely incompetent at telling a story, only partially incompetent.

Here's a sample. I apologize in advance for the crude and shoddy content.

My personal favorite blowjob story happened with a girl I hooked up with only once. I met her in some city, out at some bar, on some night–I barely even remember what she looked like (thank you, Dollar Beer Night). I am pretty sure she was engaged, but it wasn’t to any of my friends, so I didn’t care.

The girl did a pretty decent job sucking me off, especially considering how much I drank, and I finished in her mouth. Like a pro, she kept her lips wrapped around my dick till it was dry, but when she came up, there was a strange look on her face. She contorted her expression a little, opened her mouth like she was going to vomit, which of course made me pull back quickly, then all of the sudden:


The girl belched like a drunken sailor–OFF OF MY COME!

I couldn’t stop laughing. Easily the proudest moment of my life.


It's worth noting, of course, that Tucker Max is not a very reliable narrator. For all the mild edginess of his stories, they have about as much truth to them as any braggadocios frat boy might spew. A fairly good example of his exaggeration exists, since a girl named Courtney A. slept with him and blogged about it ("He screws like he's jackhammering a sidewalk. I faked orgasm to get him to stop.") His account (expunged from his site but saved here) of a few of the same things, such as one conversation, is just a little different so as to flatter himself somewhat. I imagine that he gives the same sort of skew to all his stories - they have that ring about them, the huffing proud breath of the immature reprobate who needs to exaggerate his exploits.

Thanks to the mysterious whims of the internet, Tucker Max became famous about ten years ago, as people forwarded his site around to each other and yukked it up reading about how all women were whores. This prompted a book deal during the first flush of website-to-book cycles, and that spawned a movie. It tanked massively on a scale that doesn't happen much with modern movie releases, as it cost $7 million to make (not counting promotion) and it's earned about $1.5 million in the years since its release. An interesting website chronicles Tucker Max's expectations about the outcome ("I am guessing we open at 20-25 million, and North American gross will end up slightly over 100 million total. About the same as Juno, give or take.") and his commentary as the movie is approaching release ("Thank god for [director] Bob Gosse. Not only is he very good at all the things that come with being a director (dealing with actors, laying out shots, etc), but the man has infinite patience and calm."). Later, as the movie starts to crash, Tucker Max becomes more and more crass ("We had a director on the last one, and he just didn't - we thought he understood the vision, and we thought he got it, and it turns out he didn't...it seems like a little thing, but it makes a difference if you understand movies.") and desperate ("Of course I want it to hit as huge as possible theatrically, but there is zero doubt in my mind it will be huge on DVD.")

This is a bad book made into a bad screenplay made into a bad movie, all by a reprehensible person. Do not read it or watch it. It will waste your time.

1 comment:

  1. William Sleator also wrote "The Boy Who Reversed Himself," a book from which I can trace back my fascination with the mind-bending and daring...I didn't think anyone else had everr heard of him! Give Lizzie a high-five for me!