Posts Tagged ‘Non-Fiction’

BOOK: Lost in Shangri-La: A True Story of Survival, Adventure, and the Most Incredible Rescue Mission of World War II by Mitchell Zuckoff (2012)

August 9, 2012

In May of 1945, a group of Army soldiers and WACs (Women’s Army Corps members) boarded a transport plane at their base in Dutch New Guinea to go sight-seeing over the jungle region they’d nicknamed “Shangri-La.”  It was a beautiful area, full of incredible wildlife and stunning scenery, but the real draw for this group of curious Westerners were the dozens of villages visible through the trees, villages full of native peoples rumored to be vicious cannibals.

The sight-seeing trip ended in horror, though, when the plane suddenly crashed into a mountain, killing everyone on board except for three: Margaret Hastings, burned severely; John McCollom, completely uninjured, but for the enormous hole in his heart left when he realized his twin brother had died on impact; and Kenneth Decker, suffering from a gaping head wound and possible internal injuries.

The group spent several days at the crash site, dazed and scared.  Rescue planes flew overhead numerous times looking for them, but McCollom, who emerged quickly as the group’s leader, knew the planes would never see them unless they got out from under the jungle canopy.

So, despite their brutal injuries, McCollom got Margaret and Decker up on their feet and led them on a grueling, dangerous hike to a clearing they could see in the distance.  Just as they arrived, another rescue plane flew overhead, tipping its wings to let them know they’d been seen.

There wasn’t any time for celebration, though, as just as the plane flew off, out of the jungle came dozens of armed native men, dressed only in “penis gourds” (strange gourd contraptions they wore around their waists to cover their naughty bits) and carrying spears.  Panicked, Margaret and Decker froze.  But McCollom walked slowly up to the men and tried to communicate with them.  After a few tense moments, the two groups relaxed, each coming to realize the others meant no harm.  The rumors about the natives of Shangri-La had been grossly exaggerated — the Dani, as they eventually learned the people were called, were actually incredibly kind and generous.

Over the next several weeks, the military struggled to come up with a rescue plan to get the survivors out of the deep jungle.  But nothing they had could get them there and back again safely.  Helicopters couldn’t fly in the thin air of the region, and there wasn’t anywhere for a plane to land.  So, for the time being, they did what they could, dropping cases of supplies regularly, and eventually sending two doctors, followed by about 10 soldiers, parachuting into the jungle to help care for the survivors and keep them safe.

This group of Westerners eventually became close friends with many of the natives of the region, despite the fact they couldn’t understand each other at all.  Drawn from interviews, declassified Army documents, personal photos and mementos, a survivor’s diary, a rescuer’s journal, and original film footage, this riveting non-fiction book recounts the whole incredible story.

Zuckoff not only extensively researched the tale through these historical sources, though — he also returned to the region of Shangri-La, only recently starting to “Westernize.”  There, he miraculously found a number of Dani who had either been alive in 1945 and met the group of survivors first-hand, or who were born to some of the original natives and grew up hearing stories about the band of white spirits (as they thought they were) who appeared one day in their jungle.

Lost in Shangri-La is absolutely fascinating.  Not just because of the incredible story of survival and resilience, but because of Zuckoff’s descriptions of the culture and religion of the Dani people — both then and now.  As if that weren’t engrossing enough, though, just wait until you get to the part where the group is finally rescued.  With a harrowing, unbelievable, sure-to-fail plan, the Army somehow managed to get every last one of its people back out of the jungle.  And, years later, they were also able to go back in once more to retrieve the bodies of the dead.

I could barely put this book down while I was reading it, and it’s left me dying to read more about the native cultures of Papua and Papua New Guinea, who had some truly fascinating beliefs.  It was interesting, too, to see what happened to the Dani who were exposed to the servicemen/women.  This was a tribe that knew of fire, but not of the wheel, for example.  They had no metal tools, and no currency, and they’d never even heard of white people, let alone seen any.  After several weeks with a group of U.S. Army soldiers, though, a lot of this changed, and it changed fast.  Though Zuckoff doesn’t explore the impact of this very much — probably because the impact would be pretty difficult to determine — it was a lot of food for thought.

Well-written and an absolutely incredible story, this is a book to put on your list for sure!

Recommended!

[NON-FICTION]

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BOOK: The Murder Room: The Heirs of Sherlock Holmes Gather to Solve the World’s Most Perplexing Cold Cases by Michael Capuzzo (2011)

February 9, 2012

This non-fiction book by journalist Michael Capuzzo is about the Vidocq Society, a group of the world’s finest sleuths who meet once a month, coming from all over the place, to try to solve some of the globe’s toughest cold cases — pro bono.  The members come from a variety of professions:  medical examiners, forensic economists, police detectives, and even a sculptor who specializes in recreating the faces of the dead.  (For those who don’t know — and I only know because he was a character in Louis Bayard’s fantastic mystery novel The Black Tower — Eugène Vidocq, for whom the society is named, was a French crook-turned-cop in the late 1700s/early 1800s.  He founded the Sûretéin France and is widely considered to be the first “real” criminalist/detective.)

The main focus of the book are the three founders of the society, an FBI agent turned private eye (William Fleisher), the aforementioned sculptor (Frank Bender), and a tall, thin, chain-smoking genius with no bedside manner whatsoever named Richard Walter, known far and wide as the “living Sherlock Holmes.”  These three established the society when they realized how many unsolved murders simply end up being set aside after a year or two and never pursued again, due to lack of time, funds, and manpower.  So, they began to meet casually to go over cases together, and, as they started to solve a few here and there, more members joined the group and more police departments, frustrated by cases they couldn’t solve, came to them asking for help.

The book tells the stories of several such cases, ranging from Philadelphia’s decades-old “Boy in the Box” murder to the “Butcher of Cleveland,” a serial killer tracked by Elliot Ness in the 1930s, all of which were absolutely fascinating.  But the problem is, riveting as the actual case studies were, this book is an absolute disaster.  For a journalist, Capuzzo is an absolutely terrible writer with no sense whatsoever of how to organize content to make it comprehensible, and the result is a book that reads more like a set of notes for a book than an actual completed project.

Instead of focusing on one case at a time, which would’ve made this a much stronger and more engrossing collection, Capuzzo hacks each homicide up into smaller stories and then mixes them all together, in an attempt, I’m sure, to create suspense and tension (lots of chapters ended with something like, “And he couldn’t believe what he learned next!” with the revelation of that new clue not coming for several more chapters as he switched around his focus — annoying).  When you’re talking about half a dozen or more complicated cases, cases so complicated the cops assigned to solve them had to seek out the Vidocq Society, this technique simply made the whole thing frustratingly hard to follow. Especially when Capuzzo also interspersed long tangents here and there about the society members themselves, some of which he ended up telling us more than once (one more paragraph about Bender’s unorthodox marriage, for example, and I was set to throw the whole damn thing in the trash — okay, we get it!  He loves his wife AND his mistress!  MOVING ON NOW!).

It’s a shame the first book about the Vidocq Society, a truly fascinating organization, had to be such a tremendous mess.  Had it been written by someone more talented, or at least forcefully edited, it could’ve been an absolute non-fiction masterpiece, the subjects were so tremendously intriguing.  That said, I’m glad I read it and got to learn about both this group of dedicated volunteers and some of the biggest cases they managed to solve.  The book mentioned more than once that the idea of making a film about the Vidocq Society has been bantered around a bit for years — here’s hoping they do it, do it soon, and get somebody with some talent to write the script.  The workings of the society could make for a superb film, and I’d be first in line to get a ticket for sure.

True crime fans may still find much to enjoy here, but brace yourselves for a total train wreck, literarily-speaking!

[NON-FICTION]

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BOOK: In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin by Erik Larson (2011)

November 7, 2011

The latest non-fiction book by Erik Larson, whose previous two works both blew me away (The Devil in the White City and Thunderstruck), this book has what sounds like a riveting premise but what, in my opinion (whatever that’s worth) ends up not having quite enough substance to make for a riveting book.

Set in 1933, it’s about President Roosevelt’s last choice for U.S. Ambassador to Germany, a professor from Chicago named William Dodd.  Dodd’s only real qualifications for the job were his familiarity with Germany, having gone to school outside Berlin for a short time, and fluency in the language — he had no practical experience with politics, and his primary era of historical interest was America’s Deep South, pre- and post-Civil War.  But he had the one qualification Roosevelt desperately needed:  willingness.  After months of having his job offer turned down by men far more qualified, Roosevelt had pretty much given up on ever filling it before Dodd’s name was tossed his way, and he made the post sound pretty sweet.  The Dodds would have the adventure of a lifetime, make more money than they were making in Chicago (no small draw in 1933’s Depression), AND the gig would give the professor more time to work on his four-part book series about the South.  After only short deliberation, Dodd agreed, took the job and moved his wife, son, and 22 year-old daughter Martha to Berlin.

Though Dodd has the job of relevance to the tale, it’s more Martha’s story that gets the focus here, as she begins a series of affairs with various Germans, including one high-ranking member of the Gestapo, Rudolf Diels, and seems initially blind to the horrors going on in the country around her.

But the longer the Dodds stay in Berlin, the less they can continue to ignore the violent and growing persecution of the Jews.  As their year abroad unfolds, the entire family begins to move from excitement to disbelief straight through to horror, as Martha finally witnesses first-hand the brutal nature of Hitler’s plan.

Inserted into the tale are all the people whose names we know so well — Hitler, with whom Martha is even set up on a date (it doesn’t work out), Hermann Göring, and the sinisterly charming Joseph Goebbels.  Plus: back in the U.S., poet Carl Sandberg, smitten with Martha and writing her constantly (I loved the excerpts from his letters reprinted here), as well as various American political figures of the time, all equally ignorant or in denial about the dramatic change in Germany’s path.

But though there are elements of the book that are definitely intriguing, overall I didn’t feel it had much purpose to it.  There isn’t anything dramatically new revealed — it focuses mostly on the U.S.’s stubborn refusal to acknowledge Hitler’s evil until it was too late to do anything to stop him (the Dodd family serving as a metaphor in that regard for the entire American political machine).  Even after Dodd begins to complain to Roosevelt about the stories he’s hearing all around him, including torture of American Jews in Berlin, Roosevelt and his people continue to plug their ears and sing “la la la, I can’t hear you, la la la!” (I paraphrase) for far too long.   This isn’t new information, though.  At least, I hope it isn’t.

And while I’d never heard of the Dodds before and was interested to learn their story, that story didn’t really amount to much in the end.  Larson instead seemed much more interested in recounting Martha’s various sexual improprieties with a mix of fascination and disdain, and a lot of the passages about her felt like Larson shaking his finger and tsking, while continuing to feed us more juicy gossip about her, as though believing sex is what might make this otherwise somewhat weak tale sell.  (Was he wrong?  Well, *I* read it. . . )

Worse, though, was the feeling I got that Larson had initially wanted to write a book about the early 1930s in Germany and then came up with the Dodd family as the framework, instead of the other way around.  Realizing too late there wasn’t enough substance to their experiences to make the story very engrossing, he then turned to the cheapest writer trick available:  the cliffhanger.  Far, FAR too many sections or chapters end with a variant of “Little did they know the event the happened NEXT would change their lives FOREVER!” Overuse of the cliffhanger gimmick is one of my biggest writing pet peeves, and for Larson, a man I know to be a tremendously talented writer, to rely on it so heavily was just, quite frankly, kind of a bummer.

I’m really interested in WWII history, and for that reason alone, I’m glad I read this book.  If you aren’t as much of a history buff, though, you’ll find little to pull you in here.  Which is a shame because, frankly, I wasn’t at all interested in the Chicago World’s Fair myself, and Devil in the White City was a book that, once started, I found impossible to set down.  Larson’s usual knack for revealing the exciting drama behind the drier history is completely missing here.  And man, I sure hope it turns up soon — like before he starts writing his next book.

Rats.  Is what I’m saying.  This should’ve been a much better book than it is.  And I hate it when that happens.

[NON-FICTION]

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BOOK: Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman by Jon Krakauer (2009)

May 1, 2011

I’ve had this book on my to-read pile for at least a year now and just wasn’t sure I wanted to read it.  Though I’m a huge fan of Krakauer’s work, the story I knew about Pat Tillman was depressing enough already — did I really want to know more?  Ultimately, my curiosity got the best of me, though; if there was more to know, I found myself wanting to know it.  Because while in many ways, I felt I understood why things went down the way they did, the events of the years since the incident left growing doubts in my mind about the various justifications I’d taken for granted at the time.

As it turns out, those doubts were spot-on.  The things I learned from this book, especially about the Army and Bush administration-led cover-up, are pretty horrifying, insulting, and unforgivable.  (Surprise, surprise.)

For those who don’t know or don’t remember, Pat Tillman was an NFL player who gave up a multi-million dollar contract after 9/11 to enlist in the Army and fight the Taliban.  Excerpts from his journals, included in the book, as well as interviews with those who knew and served with him reveal Tillman to have been a highly intelligent, gentle man with a strong sense of loyalty and patriotism.

When Tillman was sent to Iraq instead of Afghanistan, he was pretty unhappy — he believed the Iraq war was a fraud and he’d enlisted to fight those responsible for 9/11, not these other guys.  He was also constantly frustrated by the immaturity of many of the soldiers around him, most of whom were only 19 or 20 years old, and frequently complained about what he perceived as a lack of solid leadership from the officers above him.

Having survived his Iraq tour, Tillman was offered numerous chances to get out of his Army contract and return to football, something he was desperate to do.  But he turned every offer down, believing it was his duty to serve all three of the years he’d signed up for, and before long, he was sent to war again, this time to Afghanistan.  In his platoon with him was his younger brother, Kevin, and the two were very, very close.  (This relationship played a bit of a role in his death, in fact, and I’ve wondered since reading this book if having brothers serve so closely together is maybe not a great idea.)

One day, the Tillman brothers set out on a mission that consisted of several soldiers in several Humvees.  This was the mission during which Pat was killed, and it was later revealed he’d been shot by his own platoon-mates accidentally.  I’ll leave the story of what happened for you to discover, but the short version is that bad leadership, stupid decisions made by higher-ups who weren’t on the scene and weren’t listening to the objections of those who were, and too many anxious, scared kids with automatic weapons were to blame.

Initially, I believed that the “cover-up” was understandable for morale reasons, and also because the Army was investigating the incident and trying to be thorough before releasing details.  But, man, how naive I was.  The real problem was that Tillman had, since enlisting, become Bush’s poster child for patriotism (something Pat himself resented, which is why he never gave a single interview about his decision to enlist).  Your poster child killed by friendly fire?  Damn, talk about a PR nightmare!  And so began a years-long, massively complex conspiracy to keep the truth both from the public and from the Tillman family themselves.  Dozens of rules were broken, terrible lies were told, and when the full story finally came out, only one man ended up being formally and seriously sanctioned by the Army — a guy who’d long since retired from service and whose sanction would, in that case, have no real impact on his life whatsoever.

This book, excellently and accessibly written, as Krakauer’s work always is, tells three stories — the story of the incident, the story of the cover-up, and, perhaps most fascinating, the story of Pat Tillman himself, a man I confess I mostly thought of as a dumb jock until I read this book, and who I now respect immeasurably.

This is definitely a must-read for anyone interested in the Bush wars, war-time politics, or heroes.  Gripping, thought-provoking, infuriating, and tragic, this is one of the most affecting non-fiction books I’ve read in a while.  Very likely to show up on my Top Ten list for 2011.  Recommended!

[NON-FICTION]

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BOOK: The Best American Science Writing 2010 edited by Jerome Groopman (2010)

February 14, 2011

I’ve seen several of these “best writing” journalism books over the years — there’s a sports writing one, a music one, etc. — but I’d never picked one up before.  Why?  Because I’d never seen the SCIENCE one before, DUH.   And now that I’ve read 2010’s for science, I can’t wait to go back and read all the others I’ve missed (it looks like this particular series goes back to 1995 — whee!), because it was really, really incredibly great.

Some of the articles were ones I’d read in their original publications, as there are several from Discover, the New York Times Sunday Magazine, and the New Yorker, all things I read regularly.  But most of them were articles I’d missed completely.  The first piece in this collection had me thinking for days; it’s about people who volunteer, via a web site, to donate their “spare” organs to sick people (for free), selecting from the site’s numerous profiles a person in need whose story appeals to them and then offering them a much-needed kidney, part of their liver, etc.  Now, think on that for a while — not just about the unique psychology of such a donor, but also the pressure of a gift of that nature (in most cases, the donor and the recipient end up getting to know each other personally) and the ramifications of this on the standard UNOS system, which typically ranks recipients based on medical need (ensuring fair treatment for people of all skin color and financial status, for one thing).  The article addresses all these things and more, and left me feeling a whole host of complicated emotions, ranging from wishing I had the balls to offer someone a gift of that nature and thinking this is probably a really, really bad idea in general.

The second article, about the placebo effect and its place in pharmaceutical research and psychological history, was equally striking, as was the article later in the book that was about a hospital in New Orleans just after Katrina, where doctors made the decision to euthanize several patients, perhaps unjustifiably.  (Anybody who had a DNR, for example, was deemed a low priority for evacuation regardless of their current health status, a fact that utterly horrified me, even as I recognize I can only imagine the hardship and struggle these doctors experienced trying to save as many people as they could.)

Other articles in the book look at genetics, the continuing evolution of man, pesticides as a potential cause of massive bee death, the dangers of the death of real science journalism, and more.   Every article was thoroughly engaging and extremely well-written, not to mention pretty provocative at times as well — exactly what you’d expect from a collection of “best writing” from the last year.

Highly recommended to anybody with even the most passing interest in what’s going on in the world of science these days, and I’m really looking forward to catching up on all the previous years.

[NON-FICTION]

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BOOK: Weekends at Bellevue: Nine Years on the Night Shift at the Psych ER by Julie Holland, MD (2009)

December 14, 2010

I’m a bit of a sucker for memoirs written by doctors.  I’ve read a ton of them, and almost always really enjoy them.  This is the first time I’ve read one written by a psychiatrist, though, and while I was intrigued by the idea of a memoir about life on the front lines of a psychiatric emergency room, I didn’t end up getting much out of it, I’m afraid.  In large part because this is one doctor who is clearly a much better doctor than storyteller.

One of the things that makes a medical memoir so fascinating (to me, anyway) is the way in which the doctors telling the stories about their training and patients manage to make those stories relatable to the average reader.  I may not have gone to medical school, and I’ve definitely never had a super-duper bizarre illness, but somehow I am almost always able to feel some kind of empathetic pull.

And that’s where Holland’s book falls down on the job.  Instead of taking the time to tell intimate stories about the people (teachers, colleagues, or patients) who really had an impact on her during her nine years at Bellevue, she focuses instead of telling short vignettes about the most disturbed patients she encountered on the job.  While this was fascinating initially, if only because it’s hard NOT to be fascinated by stories about super-duper crazy people, especially when you are sometimes considered to be super-duper crazy yourself, eventually I got bored with Holland herself.  She seemed to find each case more a spectacle than anything else, and even says in the prologue she focused on her most radically ill patients because she figured those would be the stories that sold.  But I think she’s wrong about that, myself, and the fact most of the chapters are only 2-3 pages long meant there was never time to really connect with any patient or their plight.

I confess I didn’t even end up finishing this one — I had a hard time putting it down for the first fifty or so pages, thinking every short tale of illness was building up to a bigger story about Holland herself, but when it became clear she wasn’t headed in that direction, I lost interest.  I skipped most of the last hundred pages and jumped to the end — still hopeful, but ultimately still unsatisfied.

I suppose it’s about time I hit on a doctor memoir that stunk — I can’t think of another one I’ve read that didn’t enthrall me in one way or another.  But this is only the book for you if you like gawking at the mentally ill (not my thing, personally), not if you’re interested in learning something.  For far, far better works in this genre, dig up anything you can find by Atul Gawande, who is one of the best at this sort of thing I’ve encountered, or Oliver Sacks, who writes about neurology and mental illness in a far more personal and less clinical way.

[NON-FICTION]

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BOOK: Shell Games: Rogues, Smugglers, and the Hunt for Nature’s Bounty (2009) by Craig Welch

July 14, 2010

I actually finished reading this terrific non-fiction book several weeks ago, but I’m way behind on reviews at the moment and am only now getting to this one in the list.  Which is dumb because I could’ve summed this book up in a single sentence: Shell Games is a  fascinating and thoroughly bizarre thrill-ride that’ll make you go “Huh?” and then “Hmmm. . .” and finally “WTF?!” (in a good way).  And I’m not just saying that because I know the author personally (although, disclosure: I do).

One of the best parts about reading this book, I have to say, was that when people asked me what it was about and I answered, “geoduck poachers,” I got the greatest looks.  Looks that said, “Whozzit what now?”  Looks that said, “What’s a ‘gooeyduck’ and why would I want to poach one?”  People were invariably curious at first, and then totally dumbstruck once filled in. Which makes sense, I suppose, because this is one weird, wild story.

The bulk of this tale is about an elaborate, surprisingly enormous ring of geoduck poachers that’s been operating in the Pacific Northwest for years (author Craig Welch is an environmental reporter at the Seattle Times).  Believe it or not, the poaching of these giant clams involves all the same sorts of things you’d expect to find in a drug smuggling operation: undercover officers, intricately planned stings, death threats, and millions of dollars in black market revenue.  Giant clams!  Selling overseas for $200+ apiece!  Get out — that’s loco like bananas (as my niece would say)!

Welch mostly focuses on a specific operation by the Fish and Wildlife department, describing the methods and motivations employed by all the various parties:  the officers in charge, their snitch/informant (a former poacher himself, perfectly happy to turn on his “colleagues”), and the poachers themselves, who are not, I repeat: NOT!, messing around here.  Tick one off and the next thing you know, there’ll be a price tag on your phallic-looking-clam-smuggling head.

Along the way, Welch also tells us about a variety of other wildlife thefts, everything from moss stolen from the forests of the Northwest (moss!  stolen!  for money!  boggles!  the!  mind!) to women smuggling small monkeys onto airplanes in their hair.  A long passage about a butterfly thief from Japan (selling his finds on Ebay, of all places) kept me up way past my bedtime, as the undercover cop in charge of bringing him down tried repeatedly to endear himself to the man, only to find himself constantly pissing him off instead.  As it turns out, butterfly smugglers also have extremely short fuses — somewhat surprising given the delicate nature of their work.  Also: they can really hold a grudge.

Every chapter in this book is as riveting as the last, but aside from the stories themselves, what makes Shell Games a true pleasure to read is the writing. Welch is a gifted author, with an astonishing talent for describing a scene — not what I expected, to be honest, from a newspaper reporter.  And, of course, the stories themselves read like white-knuckling fiction:  You’re going to blow that guy up because he’s. . . encroaching on your black market profits on. . . GEODUCKS?  Blow him up?  For CLAMS?  Again: boggled!

Once I picked this book up, I had a hard time putting it back down again.  It’s an absolute must-read for anyone interested in protecting our wildlife, or, for that matter, anyone who simply loves a brilliantly weird story.  (And by the way, Craig, next time I see you, I’m going to need to hear more about those monkeys-in-their-hair ladies. Get ready to regale me with more!)

Highly recommended!

[NON-FICTION]

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BOOK: Publish This Book by Stephen Markley (2010)

April 2, 2010

While out browsing in a bookstore recently (local! independent!), I came across this one in the New Non-Fiction pile.  I’ve been working on a novel myself lately (partly hence the temporary Boyfriend hiatus, I’m afraid, but I’m hoping to get a new write-up posted next week), and while I don’t fully believe I even want to try to get it published, just tinkering with it has gotten me intrigued about that entire process.  How does that work, exactly?  I mean, I sort of have a publisher interested, kind of maybe, but I assume if I ever do decide to go that route, I’m going to have to know a few things about the next steps.

And so, that’s why I picked this book up.  Oh, for kicks, mostly.  I ended up BUYING it, though, because, as it turns out, while this is, in fact, a book about how to publish a book, it’s not at all what I just made it sound like it is.

Stephen Markley, before writing Publish This Book, was a struggling writer  working mostly in content (writing for web sites like Cars.com, for example).  He’d written a couple of books (a novel, a travel memoir) but never had any luck getting them published.  That’s when he came up with this idea — why not write a book that is ABOUT publishing a book?  Why not  write a book about publishing the very book you are writing?  And while you’re at it, while it’s already that weird, why not also make it absolutely hilarious?

I knew I was going to like this one when I read the back and found it riddled with goofy footnotes.  Sure, that’s a gimmick, and I can see at least three of you rolling your eyes from here — but it’s the sort of gimmick I would employ, to be honest, so I was already feeling a connection.  A lot of his humor was right up my alley, in fact, and I started reading it the moment I made it mine, then spent the afternoon sitting across from my spouse cackling with glee every 2-3 pages (the spouse is currently reading and loving Joe Hill’s book of scary stories, 20th Century Ghosts, by the way — that’ll be next up for me as soon as he’s done).  This is a really funny book.  It’s funny and weird and clever and very entertaining.

Or, at least, it WAS.

Here’s the problem with a book like this.  After a little while — I’d say roughly the half-way point — the gimmick starts to get a bit tired, and the book about publishing the book starts to feel more like the writer, who now has a contract and hasn’t finished the book yet, trying to figure out what to say to get a book about publishing a book all filled up.  It got repetitive.  It got boring.  The style got old.  The stories got kind of tedious.  I stopped laughing.  Eventually, I started to get sort of impatient and annoyed.

This book is on the long side — 469 pages — and it could’ve benefited a great deal from the heavy axe of a sharp editor.  Maybe that’s the book Markley can write next?  EDIT This Book?  That said, if he does, I’ll tell you this much: I’ll be first in line for a copy.  Because as sloggy as this book ended up being, there’s no doubt in my mind that Markley is smart, funny, and full of a lot of truly unique ideas.  I look forward to seeing what, if anything, he manages to publish yet.

Recommended, at least for the first 200 pages.  See what you think.

Genre: NON-FICTION

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BOOK: Dry by Augusten Burroughs

August 12, 2009

When author Augusten Burroughs was in his early 20’s, he landed an incredible job as a New York City ad executive, despite his lack of formal education in that field. A few years later, he almost lost that job when his binge drinking spiraled into full-on alcoholism. After months of coming to work drunk, his boss and colleagues staged an intervention and Burroughs was sent off for thirty days in rehab.

Burroughs selected the Proud Institute in Minnesota for his stint in the dryer, thinking that at the very least, a center geared towards GLBT populations would have the best shot of being hip and featuring “good music and sex.” He entered the Institute still completely convinced he didn’t actually need treatment, a feeling that quadrupled immediately when, in the first almost unbearably-cheesy group session, he was tossed two giant stuffed animals, Monkey Wonky and Blue Blue Kitten, and told he should snuggle up with them for the night. I’m sorry, what?

Despite the (hilariously) rocky beginnings, however, it wasn’t long before Burroughs began to recognize he had a serious problem. Thirty days later, he returned home a changed and sober man. But the post-rehab world is a hard one for anyone in recovery, and even though his rehab buddy Hayden moved in with him so they could help keep each other on track, a doomed relationship with a fellow addict and the increasing HIV-related health problems of his best friend/former lover Pighead threatened to send Burroughs tumbling back off the wagon.

Written with humor, sarcasm, and the occasional bit of semantic grace, this is another strong addition to the rehab-memoir genre. It’s not quite as good as I was expecting, given the fact I know Burroughs can tell a mean personal story (Running with Scissors, e.g.). But for what it is, it works, teaches, entertains, and moves. Definitely recommended to fans of the genre, and I’ll be keeping it in mind for my library patrons as well.

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MOVIE: Religulous (2008)

April 20, 2009

religulousFor the life of me, I can’t remember which review I read of this movie that made me want to see it.  After I watched this documentary about religion this weekend, I went back to the usual suspects to try to track down the one I so vividly remembered reading.  The one that told me this was not a movie that made fun of religious people, but instead one where Maher very respectfully asked interesting and thoughtful questions  about why so many people on this planet believe the various things they believe in.

But, I couldn’t find that review, whatever it was.  Ebert, Entertainment Weekly — had I read those, I would’ve had more of a clue going into this that it was actually a snarkfest more than an open-minded exploration.  My husband snorted when I expressed displeasure at this — it’s a BILL MAHER movie, so what did I expect?  But honestly?  What I didn’t expect was a Michael Moore movie.  And that’s kind of what I got.

In this film, Maher goes around talking to a wide variety of people about religion.  Everybody from Christian truckers, to two priests at the Vatican (who I totally want to make Boyfriends of the Week now, by the way — that’s how cool they were), to a scientist who specializes in the fascinating (to me, anyway)  field of “neurotheology,” to two ex-Mormons, to a “Jew for Jesus,” etc. etc.   And yes, I laughed out loud a LOT during this movie.  And I understood the points Maher was trying to make.  And he makes a lot of very good ones.

However, just like with Michael Moore’s films, I found that Maher’s good points about religion were way, way overshadowed by the fact he was only pretending to be open-minded and “curious” about the people he was talking to, and as soon as he was out of ear-shot, he let his judgments flow.  He would snark at their beliefs behind their backs, substitute fake captions that made people look (and feel, I’m sure, once they watched the film) extremely stupid, and he also very, very carefully selected the people he talked to, making sure their beliefs would fit neatly into his preconceived notions about religion (i.e. that it’s all equally ridiculous).

He didn’t pick, for example, Christians who were thoughtful and questioning of their religion’s dogma and whether or not the Bible should be interpreted literally.  Like, say, the numerous Christians who have decided that Creation and evolution don’t make sense when put side-by-side, and have spent quite a bit of time studying both ideas and working out a way the two can coexist in a fairly logical manner.

Instead, Maher focuses on the Christians who think dinosaurs and man coexisted, and, just in case we still don’t get it, repeats his point over and over that their beliefs are completely irrational (not to mention wholly unoriginal, which was actually one of the parts of this film I found the most interesting).

Maher also sabotages his own movie by tossing into the final act a Dutch guy who has created a “religion” around marijuana.  The guy had no actual dogma — he essentially just gets stoned and calls his pad a “church.”  Maher spends a lot of time with him as though he is actually representative of some type of organized religion.  But in reality, it seemed pretty obvious to me that this was just a gimmick to get the film to The Netherlands, where he could track down some Muslims and make fun of their beliefs too.  (Why look for Muslims in the Netherlands, you wonder?  Because of Theo Van Gogh’s murder:  http://www.usatoday.com/news/world/2004-11-02-filmmaker-killed_x.htm.)

I dismissed that marijuana church scene just like I dismissed the one in Moore’s film Bowling for Columbine, where Moore tries to demonstrate how violent and idiotic Charlton Heston is by confronting him almost viciously, even though Heston was suffering from Alzheimer’s and was clearly confused and unsteady.   That’s not playing fair — that’s playing up.

So, yes, this movie has some interesting things to say about religion.  Just like Moore’s movies have had interesting things to say about gun violence, the healthcare system, and etc.  And yes, it’s also very, very funny at times.

But the problem I have with movies like this is that as soon as you cross the line from “documentary” to “mockery,” you invalidate your position from my perspective.  These movies preach ONLY to the choir — they present the information their intended audience already accepts, and that is as far as they go.  Where a reasoned examination of religion might have the power to change or at least open minds, this movie merely has the power to invoke one of two emotions:  “right on!” assent or outright fury.

Neither one of these two emotions lends itself well to reasoned discourse.

Disappointing, to say the least.  It did lead me to make up a new film genre for this site, though:  Snarkumentary.  I suppose that is not worth nothing.

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Genre: Snarkumentary
Cast:  Bill Maher, lots of religious people, some marijuana