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LitMonkey – February 2013

February 27, 2013

LitMonkey is a monthly series where I discuss the books I’ve read over the past month in a highly personal way.  It is in no way an exact clone of Nick Hornby’s “Stuff I’ve Been Reading.”  This is the fourth installment.  Enjoy!

Books I Purchased:

Books I Borrowed from the Library:

Books I Read:

So it seems February was madness month here at LitMonkey.  With intrepid gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson at my side, I jumped into the coldest month of the year at a frenetic pace and never looked back, though I did meander a bit while stuck in the bloated stories that made up Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things.  But more on that in a bit.

I have been known to buy a book and put it away for later reading.  Sometimes much later reading.  Sometimes I never get to the book as it finds a comfortable place on my bookshelf to call home.  With Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas though I believe that I set a new personal record in time elapsed between date of purchase and date read.  I have owned it for all of my adult life, having purchased in the summer when I turned 18.[1] I tried my hand at reading it then but my mind was not ready yet.  Or perhaps the summertime, when I bounced from beach to beach and wasted my days and nights away didn’t put me in the right frame of mind to appreciate the journey of the great Raoul Duke.  Either way, I’m sure that I did not get more than 20 pages in before the summer ended, with the book landing on my shelf post summer break.  As I moved from home to home it came with me, only to be packed and unpacked but never read.  Not a single attempt at reading this legendary piece of work until now.  At which point I of course devoured it in about 4 days.  Apparently my mind was ready.  I won’t bore you with my thoughts on the book or my experience reading it – there are probably thousands of reviews of Fear and Loathing online, the world doesn’t need another.[2]  All I will say is that if you’re not enjoying it immensely, put it down – it’s not the book, it’s you.  It’s that good.  You just need to be ready and in the right frame of mind.  Hopefully one day you will be.

After the spiritual journey to the heart of the American Dream, I was ready to switch gears and experience a journey through the material world of Stuff.  I am a collector and always have been.  As a child I was obsessed with baseball cards.  Since then the urge to collect has never left me, as my immense piles of records & CDs, sports memorabilia, and ticket stubs (among many other things) can attest to.  And so I thought that Stuff might enlighten me as to why I enjoy the process of collecting, the psychological root behind what drives my passions, the “meaning of things” as the title promises.  Sadly, after reading detailed story after story about compulsive hoarders – people whose lives are in danger because their homes are overrun with their possessions – I learned nothing.  Or at least nothing of interest.  Alas it is possible to be so mentally ill that you fill every room of your house, from ceiling to floor, with newspapers, furniture, garbage, even cats[3], and living this way could make you a pariah in society, drive your spouse and children away and create hazardous conditions that could lead to physical illness or death.  This is very sad, but not very interesting, unless you the reader are perhaps a loved one of a compulsive hoarder.  As for the “meaning of things,” the book offers everything and nothing – we learn the very many characteristics of things that attract stuff to hoarders, but little that can be generalized to people like me, people who like to collect but aren’t necessarily materialistic.[4]  Towards the end, the book went from boring to downright insulting, when Frost discusses hoarding in children.  While it is possible that the children described in the Frost’s various cases could grow up to be hoarders, their current maladies seem to vary range anywhere from being on the autism spectrum to just being kids.  This was obviously a case of someone who studies something for a living finding it everywhere he looks.  That’s too bad, because though I don’t feel bad for the cats, I do feel bad for the children wrongly diagnosed with a disorder they don’t have (and possibly not being properly diagnosed with disorders they do have and which may be treatable).

My journey took me next to Sarah Vowell, a name that I’d been noticing often lately. And though I can’t remember where it was, I know that I had seen Vowell’s Take the Canolli cited as a book worth reading.  Vowell has one of the better entries in You’re a Horrible Person, But I Like You: The Believer Book of Advice which I read in November and so I was somewhat enthusiastic when I saw Take the Canolli in my local library.  The book is her second, the first of her two collections of humorous autobiographical essays.  These can easily and obviously be compared to David Sedaris’ Naked and Me Talk Pretty One Day, each of which is fresh in my mind.  The best thing I can say about Vowell, at least based on just this one book, is that she is a poor man’s Sedaris.  Her stories are amusing and occasionally charming, but lack Sedaris’ depth.  She is neither as bleak nor as laugh-out-loud funny, so you are left feeling like something was left on the table, that she could have pushed her story more in just about any direction and made it that much better.  The collection is also disorganized; while Sedaris traces his life through anecdotes, creating a novel form of memoir, Vowell has loosely arranged short stories that don’t fit together into any larger theme. (She separates the book into four parts which are thematic, but the four parts are so disparate as to feel random.)  I really want to like Take the Canolli so much more than I do.  Too often the author would touch upon something that seemed like it could open up a world of exploration (such as her “claustrophobia” that she describes in the chapter “Take the Canolli,” or her theory that Frank Sinatra was the first punk) but then drop it and head in a more uninteresting direction.  I walked away thinking, “I am definitely going to read Vowell’s next book because I can see her potential to be so much better.”  Reading this book was like watching a rookie athlete with all the talent in the world who isn’t quite ready for the big leagues yet.  In the end, I think these stories would have been better off living in magazines or a website, with her next book (whatever it is) being her first.

Naturally, madness month concluded with my taking on The Psychopath Test.  This is the first book I’ve read by Jon Ronson, famous for writing not only this New York Times bestseller but also The Men Who Stare at Goats, adapted into a movie starring George Clooney, and so I had no idea what to expect in terms of style, content or approach.  I could not have been more pleased.  The Psychopath Test, for those who don’t know, is Ronson’s story of exploring the world of psychopaths after inadvertently stumbling upon it.  The more he learns the more complex the story gets, as Ronson learns that there are more psychopaths in the world than you could ever imagine, he learns what makes them tick and possibly how to spot them, and he learns that they may even be the people who make the world go ‘round.

Ronson is a journalist, not a doctor or scientist, and so his manner is to tell a tale of discovery as it unfolds (though “unfolds” sells him short – he goes to incredible lengths and personal risk to follow this story) and, together with his humor and easy-going writing style, this book could easily be mistaken as “Gladwell on Psychopaths.”  There is a bit of pop science and psychology here, as would be expected of a national best-seller written by a non-doctor on such a serious topic, but if you are a fan of that kind of writing then this book is for you.  I have seen reviews calling this book chilling – I don’t see it, unless you had the most naïvely optimistic view of people and society.  I have also seen reviews indicating that the book either (i) is not a great tool for diagnosing (or self-diagnosing) people as psychopaths or (ii) is a great tool for psychopath spotting.  If you’re taking this book at face value to come to either of those conclusions, you’re missing the point.  Despite the title, Ronson doesn’t claim to be able to spot a psychopath; the “test” is one that is used by the psychiatric community and one that Ronson explores, understands the virtues of, but ultimately questions.  You can see the pain that Ronson goes through internally – he wants to buy in to the psychopath test, whether to confirm his suspicions or occasionally to acquit those he believes aren’t mentally ill – but there is just enough ambiguity that he leaves the reader feeling rightfully uncertain.  There exists a test to identify someone as a psychopath – this is what the book is about –the question is whether there should be, whether through a simple test one can be correctly diagnosed as either psychopathic or not.  Ronson doesn’t definitely come out as answering “yes” or “no” to that question, he’s merely opening up the conversation, a delicate and subtle one to be sure.  If you can go into the book without preconceived notions of what it should be – as I was fortunate enough to do – and the topic of the human psyche interests you, I believe it’s impossible not to immensely enjoy this thought-provoking book.

One last though before bringing February to a close.  You may be wondering about one of my purchases, Cutting: Understanding and Overcoming Self-Mutilation.  I am not a cutter, never have been and never will be, nor do I know anyone who is.  An explanation is therefore in order.  I bought a used paperback copy of this book from The Center for Fiction Bookshop in midtown Manhattan. This is a small, old fashioned, independent book store that focuses exclusively on fiction, except for the used section in the back of the store which consists of mostly fiction but also a few shelves full of non-fiction titles which are sold for only $2 apiece ($4 for hardcovers).  Every so often I visit this store, more often than not without making a purchase despite the great used book prices.  On this last occasion I found nothing I really wanted, though I couldn’t help but notice Cutting.  Perhaps my month of madness-based reading had gotten to me, but I couldn’t help myself – I wanted to conduct a little experiment in human behavior.  In this very quiet store where I was the only customer, I walked up to the clerk all bundled up in my hat, scarf, gloves and coat (not to mention heavily bearded face), with a serious look in my eyes.  He was distracted on the phone, and so I kept my head titled downward while silently placing the book and two dollar bills on the desk between us.  He quickly ended his call, put the phone receiver down and gently asked “is that all?” I slowly nodded yes.  He asked if I wanted a bag.  I stood motionless other than again nodding yes.  At which point he took my money, handed me my copy of Cutting and eagerly wished me a nice day.  I can’t say for certain whether his reaction was out of the ordinary – perhaps this was another case of seeing something only because you are looking for it, the way Frost sees hoarders, or Ronson sees psychopaths – but I felt like I was being treated with kid gloves.  Yes, it was kind of a bizarre thing to do, but I got my $2 worth in entertainment value.  And immediately after doing it I read Ronson’s book to confirm that I am not, in fact, a psychopath.  With that behind me, and with my worst fears put to rest, I’ve thus completed my month-long journey through the world of madness.

[1] I think. Could be 17.  Or 19.

[2] I underestimated.  Goodreads alone has nearly 3,000 reviews and over 100,000 people who have rated the book.

[3] I gave the book 2 stars instead of 1 just because of the chapter on hoarding animals, specifically cats.  The main case study is of a woman who owned over 200 cats, after being pulled into a cat-hoarding cult by her psychiatrist, who herself owned over 600 cats.  For an animal person, this chapter would have been heartbreaking, I’m sure.  I don’t like cats at all, and found the whole thing to be ridiculous fun.  Please don’t judge me.

[4] To be fair, the very last chapter touches on this but by that point I’d already given up on the book.  Despite reading through to the end I was no longer willing to believe what the authors were selling.

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