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LitMonkey – November 2013

December 3, 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 thirteenth installment.  Enjoy!

Books I Read:

Books I Purchased:

Books I Borrowed from the Library:

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ABA_DrJ

Dr. J

There seems to be an uptick in interest lately in the old American Basketball Association. The league with the red, white and blue basketball competed with the NBA as a second professional basketball league from 1967-1976. ESPN recently ran a documentary called “Free Spirits” about the ABA’s St. Louis franchise. The league’s biggest star, Julius Erving, wrote an autobiography (released several weeks ago) that has gotten a lot of press. As I listened to Bob Costas talking about his days as an ABA broadcaster on this B.S. Report podcast with Bill Simmons, I’d finally heard enough to convince me to pick up a copy (ok, a library e-copy) of Loose Balls, the oral history of the ABA written by Terry Pluto. Reviews I’d seen or heard of the book ranged from very positive to “this book is f–king awesome”, so even though I don’t normally read oral histories (and the 400+ pages seemed a little excessive), it was time to give it a try. 450 pages later, my only complaint is this: Why didn’t the ABA last longer or have more teams so I could read even more about this wonderfully hilarious, endearingly insane, institution?

Spencer Haywood

Spencer Haywood

Every person who is even remotely interested in basketball will be delighted by this book. There is something in there for everyone. Of course, there are the stories about Dr. J, a man whose career I didn’t fully appreciate until hearing the first-hand accounts in this book. There are the stories about the more forgotten stars – David Thompson, Artis Gilmore, George Gervin, and the best player you never heard of, Roger Brown – and the what-might-have-been stories about the players who had the talent to be stars if only they’d had their heads on straight. Sports history is littered with what-might-have-been stories, but I would venture to say that none can top those from the ABA. This was a league that existed at a wild time and, due to its under the radar (and often desperate) second-class status let its players, coaches and even owners get away with a lot that wouldn’t be tolerated elsewhere. I could drop a few quotes here about the antics of Marvin “Bad News” Barnes, “Fly” Williams, Warren Jabali and John Brisker, but what would be the point? You’d suspect that I was cherry-picking a few salacious tidbits from a lengthy sports book, as is often done. I can’t express this enough – Loose Balls is 400 pages of the craziest, wildest, most entertaining stories ever told, all in the form of first-person accounts from very well-respected basketball men (Bob Costas, Rod Thorn, Larry Brown, and Hubie Brown are among those extensively quoted). The book is also well organized, comprehensive, and serves as the defining history of a decade of basketball that would otherwise be lost forever. It’s simply a must read.

Staying on the sports book theme, I spent part of my month reading Hey Rube, a collection of Gonzo (sports) journalist Hunter S. Thompson’s columns for the now-defunct ESPN.com Page 2. Thompson’s columns are probably the most risqué writing ever to appear on the Disney-owned site, but they are still pretty vanilla by HST standards. Fear and Loathing in the Sports World this isn’t. Thompson had excellent material to work with; the period that his columns cover (November 2000 – October 2003) was a fascinating time in the worlds of sports and politics, from Bush v. Gore to 9/11 to the Yankees/Diamondbacks World Series to the Patriots over the Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI. Thompson is not afraid to take on any and all political issue with fervor. It’s just that the juxtaposing of these issues with the results of a 49ers-Raiders game results in some uneven reading ten years later.

This is Hunter S. Thompson of course, so even if it isn’t vintage HST there is still a lot to like about the book. Thompson is often transcendent with either his foresight, humor or sense of the political climate. For example, HST was way ahead of the pack in lauding Derek Jeter and bashing Alex Rodriguez, as he did in March of 2001[1]:

If I owned a baseball team I would want Jeter on it. He is a certified Winner in more ways than that bitchy-rich shortstop from Texas will know for the next 10 years.

For humor, there are the lines and sections that only Thompson could pen, like his bit on boob jobs as Christmas Gifts, his chapter on naked bowling, or this about our 40th President:

I had a soft spot in my heart for Ronald Regan, if only because he was a sportswriter in his youth, and also because his wife gave the best head in Hollywood.

As for his political views, while I found his incessant Bush-bashing and anti-war ranting tiresome (not because I necessarily agreed or disagreed with his views, just because it so outweighed the rest of his writing), his campaign in support of Lisl Auman is inspiring and the best running thread in the book. Auman was convicted of felony murder for a killing that happened while she was already in police custody. The story is fascinating, and Thompson had a significant role in creating the political pressure that ultimately resulted in her plea bargain and freedom. While telling the Auman story (somehow within the backdrop of a football season) Hey Rube spoke in a way that is relevant today and will remain so indefinitely. My complaint is that not enough of the book is like this (or, in the alternative, as funny as the boob job stuff). I don’t lay all of the blame on Thompson though. A Mickey Mouse owned website was probably not the best place for his talent to shine.

For months I eagerly anticipated the release of Doomed, the sequel to Chuck Palahniuk’s terrific book Damned, which is about 13-year old girl Maddy Spencer who dies and is sent to Hell where she meets up with the geek, the jock, the rich pretty-girl snob, and the criminal. Damned is The Breakfast Club in Hell, and it’s a hell of a story. Doomed, which brings Maddy back to Earth, reminded me (again) of why I love Palahniuk’s writing so very much, but there was something missing from it that is present in his best books, such as Fight Club, Choke, Invisible Monsters and Damned. Doomed has all the qualities of a good Palahniuk novel – brilliant in its storytelling, sublime dark comedy and an ability to instill itself in the reader’s mind, taking over at a very base level. What was missing was the secondary level to which the best of the books rise, the message beneath the story that lurks and shows itself at the most critical moments. For example, Fight Club isn’t just about what happens when a mentally ill man abandons his life and forms a private army. It’s about the ills of mass consumerism, the perils of groupthink, and the damage that can be inflicted by those in society who feel marginalized.[2] Damned isn’t just a horror story about the afterlife. It’s a coming of age tale that’s merely set in the most unusual (and terrifying) of places. I don’t know what the point is of Doomed. I was intrigued, grossed out, and enthralled by the second tale of young Maddy, but it didn’t make me think. What it did do was to reinvigorate my interest in Palahniuk’s writing, so that I picked up the unread copy of Diary on my bookshelf.

I can’t heap enough praise on Palahniuk for Diary. I can’t say for sure that it’s better than the far better-known Fight Club, but I can’t say for sure that it isn’t either. That’s entirely due to its capturing everything that makes a Palahniuk book great, including the element missing from Doomed. Diary is suspenseful, complicated, quirky, well-written, expertly paced and chilling without being overly gory. It is also a psychological masterpiece and perhaps Palahniuk’s best achievement in criticizing certain aspects of society, the area in which he excels. Despite the use of the supernatural, I believe that the town of Waytansea could really exist and the story told in Diary could actually occur. That is how spot-on Palahniuk’s depiction of summer/tourist towns (and their non-seasonal inhabitants) is. Much like I can never think about Ikea furniture (or artisanal soap, or the insurance business) the same way after Fight Club, I will never again think about summer towns or their homes and residents – or for that matter wealth – the same way after Diary. The book is much deeper than just a good story, and therefore much deeper than Doomed. And it has me counting the days until Chuck’s next novel, Beautiful You.

There are some strong parallels between Diary and Nick Hornby’s A Long Way Down. Like Palahniuk, Nick Hornby has written several books that I love, but unlike Chuck there isn’t a single Hornby book that I haven’t at least enjoyed. (This is why I once wrote that Hornby had surpassed Palahniuk as my favorite fiction author.)  Like with Diary, I had high hopes but modest expectations for A Long Way Down, as it isn’t one of Hornby’s most heralded books. If it fell somewhere in the middle of the Hornby spectrum – somewhere between very good and great – I would have been very pleased. Instead, like I did with Diary, I got possibly my favorite book from possibly my favorite author. That said, I can understand why it isn’t nearly as famous or well-regarded as High Fidelity, About a Boy or Fever Pitch, all of which were – unlike A Long Way Down – adapted into movies. The hallmark of a great Hornby book is that despite the peculiarities of his protagonists, they are normally relatable in some way to the reader. Any reader. A Long Way Down has not one, but four, main characters, each very different than the other. It is the one and only thing they have in common – their near-attempt at committing suicide from a atop a particular London building on New Year’s Eve – that brings the four together. For many readers, that’s a bridge too far. I’m not saying that you need to be suicidal to find this a good book (though it would probably help). You do need to have a little bit of depression in your own biographical tale, whether it is earned (like Maureen’s), manufactured (like JJ’s), self-inflicted (like Martin’s) or even possibly chemical (like perhaps Jess’s). There is a quote by one of the characters explaining why they are drawn to each other – “When your sad – like really sad – you only want to be with other people who are sad.” If you’ve ever been sad, this quote makes perfect sense. And it’s why I believe this novel by Hornby may only appeal to people who at some time or another have been sad. But if you have, this is a book you will want to be with.

I wanted to like Nathan Rabin’s book about his (relatively brief) time intensely following two musical acts, Insane Clown Posse and Phish. I don’t know the first thing about ICP or Phish followers, other than that they’re dedicated – it’s more than an interest, it’s a way of life – and as such I was hoping that Rabin could provide some insight from the perspective of a pop culture geek who managed to infiltrate these realms. Alternatively, I hoped that I’d get some life perspective from Rabin, an introspective man who claims to have discovered a lot about his life during his two years on this road. In the end, I don’t feel that I got much of either. In terms of learning about Phish-head culture, the picture painted by Rabin is the one you would have assumed without reading – nice people, consumed by consuming drugs, grateful for the live show. If there’s much more to it than that, Rabin doesn’t convey it. As for learning about what it means to be a Juggalo, Rabin attempts to humanize them but succeeds only in portraying them as the dangerous thug losers, or “scrubs”, that most outsiders see them as. Throwing sh*t at Tila Tequila, hurling invectives at an old decrepit Iron Sheik, accepting the fact “Gatherings” are so out of control that inevitably someone will likely get killed – none of this is admirable. This isn’t outsiders and freaks rising above their societal status, banding together to achieve something. It’s just … pathetic. (If I’m insulting any Juggalos here I apologize, as I don’t mean to. I have no first-hand experience of ICP and no way in which to judge a Juggalo other than by Rabin’s account, which is meant to be semi-flattering but isn’t.)

As for the personal side of his tale, you can tell that Rabin wanted to go there but couldn’t quite pull the trigger. I don’t know if it’s because he promised his publishers a book about Phish and ICP (i.e., not a book about Nathan Rabin) or because he didn’t have the courage to go too deeply into his own psyche[3], but I’m extremely disappointed that the entire book isn’t more like the very last page. After writing page after page chronicling every minute detail about the Juggalos he met, Rabin takes a sharp turn, mentions his proposal to his girlfriend, and then adds a tender message about the challenges that await him dealing with mental illness, marriage, and life, and comparing it all to a transcendent jam.  He is deeply philosophical and, while on many writers this would read sappy, on Rabin it works. In fact, here’s what Rabin should have done, what I believe he actually has the writing talent to do: First, write a couple of A.V. Club articles (he’s been head writer there forever), a few thousand words each on Phish and Insane Clown Posse, just to get that out of the way. We would have gotten our fill right there. Then, really delve deep into himself, figure out why he was so transformed by his “trip”, what his diagnosis really means, why he felt compelled by a Phish concert to propose to his girlfriend at the worst possible time in his life. Rabin has already written a memoir, and now he’s written a first-person account of following two famous (or infamous) musical acts. I’ve read both and yet I still feel like I only have a glimpse of what’s going on inside his mind. I keep coming back for more, because those glimpses are so extraordinary. There are other passages like the one on the very last page that show what an insightful thinker Rabin is. There are nowhere near enough though to make this book, as written, work.

You may have noticed a lot of short, popular, humor books up at the top of this post. One of them is stand-up comedian Demetri Martin’s This is a Book.[4] I don’t think I could sum up how I felt about this book any better than this Goodreads review:

It’s a hit-and-miss for me. The quirky diagrams and short jokes were mostly very funny. The longer chapters were mostly boring and had to skim through them. If he ever decides to make a book with diagrams and short jokes, sign me up. Otherwise, pass please.

And this one, done in the spirit of Martin’s writing:

i laughed a few times. a few times i didn’t. ironic, clever, not clever enough, too clever, not ironic enough. hair.

This is a Book

This is a Graph from This is a Book

Meanwhile, more quick-hitting humor reading … STFU, Parents, a book based on the blog created by Brooklyn non-parent Blair Koenig. The blog is a self-described “a submission-based ‘public service’ blog that mocks parent overshare on social networking sites. … The site serves as a guide for parents on what NOT to post about their kids as well as a forum for non-parents to vent about their TMI-related frustrations. … The blog covers a range of topics, from placenta smoothies to lessons in potty training to bouts with puberty, and never aims to be hateful or mean-spirited. So come to gawk, and stay to laugh.”  If you can imagine what that looks like, you’ve got a pretty good sense of the book. I hate to use this phrase, but this is truly a case of “it is what it is.” Koenig’s comments are moderately funny, and most of the screen-captured parent overshare is simultaneously shocking and not at all surprising. It probably works really well as a twitter feed, where moms and dads can laugh at the few genuinely appalling/bizarre/inappropriate posts, like this one:

Rhonda: Well my belly has gotten so big that I haven’t seen my kitty kat in months … so, my old man trimmed the hedges for me 😉 #goodman

Gabe: Wow

Rhonda: lol

Meadow: THX FOR SHARING!!! WOW!!! T.M.I.!!!

Claudia: THAT’S SO HE CAN FIND IT. LMAO. HE’S LIKE LAY DOWN SO I CAN GIVE U A CREW CUT. LMFAO!!!!

I also learned some great new terms, like “waterballs,” and read many great turns of mommy-phrase, like “cuz the poop will just change to gloop.” Heh.

It’s hard to imagine this now, but funny books with lots of a short chapters organized around a single theme or gimmick – that is, books like This is a Book or STFU, Parents – existed before blogs and twitter made them ubiquitous. Paul Lukas, whom I somehow encountered before as the quirky  ESPN Uni Watch guy wrote one such book, and it’s far funnier than either of those two. “Inconspicuous Consumption” started out as a fanzine (the kind of thing you mail in money to receive) and was published as a book in 1997. What is inconspicuous consumption? As Lukas explains, “It’s about deconstructing the details of consumer culture — details that are either so weird or obscure that we’d never see them, or so ubiquitous that we’ve essentially stopped seeing them. This can mean anything from a bizarre canned good, like sauerkraut juice, to a beautifully designed light-industrial object that we’ve always taken for granted, like the Brannock Device (that gizmo they use to measure your shoe size).” If this kind of humor is you thing, if you’re the kind of person who wants to read a book written by a man who describes himself as “Sports’ only full-time uniform reporter” and has somehow been doing that job for over ten years (!), I recommended “Inconspicuous Consumption” over the other funny books you find on the tables at your local Urban Outfitters today.

So there’s my month in a nutshell. Sports, humor, and some of my favorite fiction. Next month … I promise to get back to my more traditional non-fiction reading. I can already feel my Brain on Fire.


[1] Somehow he is also ahead of the curve in calling out Raja Bell as a thug (actually a “knee-crawling, backstabbing punk with the soul of a Rat and the heart of a filthy virus”), long before Bell viciously elbowed Kobe Bryant.

[2] What it means to be a Juggalo? (Foreshadowing!)

[3] I suspect it’s the publisher reason, not the courage one. Something tells me that Rabin just didn’t feel like he could justify a second memoir of sorts.

[4] Before Martin was a comedian he worked for an ad agency, just as I did in a previous life. Though I don’t remember Martin well we did work together for a short time. Small world.

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