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LitMonkey – December 2013 / January 2014

January 2, 2014

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 fourteenth installment.  Enjoy!

*This edition of LitMonkey covers the books I read in December, not January. It occurs to me that since I normally post these at the very end of the month or – more commonly – on the first or second day of the following month, it makes sense to name the column according to the month after the month of reading. So this month’s installment will is called “LitMonkey – December 2013 / January 2014” even though it still only covers one month. Next month’s installment will be “LitMonkey – February 2014” and cover books I’ve read in January. For the three of you that care, it’s really pretty simple.

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Books I Read:

Books I Purchased:

Books I Borrowed from the Library:

  • “David and Goliath” (e-book)
  • “The Disaster Artist” (e-book)

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You’re either on the bus or you’re off the bus. The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test features a cross-country bus trip with Ken Kesey and his band of Merry Pranksters, but it’s the figurative bus that author Tom Wolfe refers to over and over again in his non-fiction novel about that gang’s wild trip through the mid-late ‘60s.Earlier this year I read Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, whereupon I explained that when I first bought the book over ten years ago my mind simply wasn’t ready for it. At this point of my life, even though I’m not on drugs, I was mentally ready for Fear and Loathing. I believe that any potential reader of that book needs to be mentally ready before they attempt to read it. In other words, you need to be on the bus.

Fear and Loathing was Thompson’s acid trip (and more). The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test isn’t Ken Kesey’s acid trip – it’s your very own.  Not literally of course, but throughout the book you will feel as if you are on a trip with the Merry Pranksters. The difference between this book and HST’s is that with Fear and Loathing you feel as if you are along for the ride on Thompson’s trip (which is an amazing feeling, no doubt). Here, you feel as if you are on your own trip, and Kesey and co. are along for the ride with you. It’s an amazing experience.

How Tom Wolfe is able to do this is beyond me. All I know is that I felt this way from about page 60 or so (after getting through a difficult entry into the story) and right up until the very end. Even though there have been many books I’ve loved this year, this is the first one that I didn’t want to ever end. I was genuinely sad, as if a trip I’d been on was over. Once it is all over comes the author’s note, which Wolfe begins as follows:

A note on the writing of this book … I have tried not only to tell what the Pranksters did but to recreate the mental atmosphere or subjective reality of it. I don’t think their adventure can be understood without that.

Mission accomplished. Everything I felt for the two weeks or so while I read this book was brought upon by the conscious effort of Wolfe. What an absolutely amazing writer. This isn’t a book, it is a trip. A glorious trip. And I was on the bus.

Of course, after reading all about Ken Kesey and what he did in the aftermath of the enormous success of his debut novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, I almost had no choice but to read that book too. I’m actually glad that unlike many people, this book was never assigned to me in high school. For one thing, I don’t know if I was on the bus yet (though I think I was). More importantly, I didn’t care to read back then, and this incredible story would have likely gone the way of others I “read” in high school. Fortunately I didn’t see the movie either, which might have spoiled the unbelievably intense experience I had with the novel.[1]  At the root of Kesey’s novel is the question, what does it mean to be sane? In his view of the world, as told through the eyes of one of the “Chronic” patients in Nurse Ratched’s asylum, the line between sane and insane is a blurry one, and one that can be traversed  by any one of us given the right internal and external stimuli and conditions. I suspect that when the novel was published in 1962 (and perhaps when the movie came out in 1975) it was frightening; nowadays I think the better adjective would be disturbing. It all makes sense now, why Ken Kesey is the man who wanted to expand our collective minds, first through mass consumption of LSD, then through whatever comes after acid. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest shows how Ken Kesey found the world to be a construction, a product of the rules that are enforced by the Combine through people like Big Nurse.  First he had Randle Patrick McMurphy try and break through; next he tried to break through himself. Fifty years later there are books and movies still built on Kesey’s premise.

Just a few months ago I was very excited for Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book, David and Goliath. Despite being a bestselling author Gladwell has more than his share of critics, but I have always been a Gladwell defender. I won’t review the book too thoroughly – as noted in this Slate piece, within one week of being published reviews appeared in the Atlantic, the New York Times, the Guardian, the Financial Times, the Millions, and Slate, to name a few; the Guardian has even “digested” the book into a 600-word satire.). I will simply say that for once I think his critics got it right. In that Slate piece, Christopher Chabris summarizes his criticism of Gladwell by painting him as a “gifted writer with a huge audience who doesn’t seem to care that much [which] I think [results in] the propagation of a lot of wrong beliefs among a vast audience of influential people. And that’s unfortunate.” On the other hand he describes the Gladwell’s defender’s position as being “from people who said in essence ‘Why do you take Gladwell so seriously—it’s obvious he is just an entertainer.’” He then cites Jason Kottke, who says in essence what I’ve been saying about Gladwell for years:

I enjoy Gladwell’s writing and am able to take it with the proper portion of salt … I read (and write about) most pop science as science fiction: good for thinking about things in novel ways but not so great for basing your cancer treatment on.

David and Goliath has caused me to switch sides. Not only is it not science, but it’s purely 100% anecdotal. There is absolutely zero evidence of cause and effect, or sufficient data to support Gladwell’s claims. Occasionally the hypotheses in individual chapters are compelling, but even then I don’t necessarily find them in support of his overall thesis about why underdogs sometimes triumph over giants. Gladwell remains a gifted writer. I will most likely read his next book because he is an entertainer. It’s just that never before has it been quite so obvious that that’s all he is.

Gladwell, of course, does not call himself an entertainer, but neither does he call himself a scientist. Gladwell is a journalist. A journalist of far less renown, but who became famous for the fascinating story she published this year, is Susannah Cahalan. Cahalan is a reporter for tabloid newspaper New York Post, so her journalism typically would not cover topics as intellectually challenging as those of Gladwell. However, Cahalan faced the challenge of her life living through – and then telling – the story of her “Month of Madness” as she does in Brain on Fire. Her triumph over her disease is heroic, but what amazes me in a completely different way is her ability to narrate the story of this triumph. Her description of the book says a lot, beginning:

One day, I woke up in a strange hospital room, strapped to my bed, under guard, and unable to move or speak. My medical records—from a month-long hospital stay of which I have no memory—showed psychosis, violence, and dangerous instability. Yet, only weeks earlier I had been a healthy twenty-four year old, six months into my first serious relationship and beginning a career as a cub reporter at the New York Post.

Allow me to focus you on six words: “of which I have no memory.” Despite this, Cahalan writes with extraordinary detail and emotion about the time before, after and during that month of madness. She does this as only a skilled reporter could – by examining the medical records, interviewing her doctors, family, and everyone who came into contact with her, and conducting tireless research in and around the autoimmune disease that was attacking her brain. Cahalan’s story is unbelievable; her ability to tell it is extraordinary.

The Disaster Artist is, as the title suggests, the inside story of the making of The Room, “the Citizen Kane of bad movies” (Entertainment Weekly). That’s what you expect and the book delivers on its promise. So it’s that, but that’s only half of what The Disaster Artist is. The Room is the “Disaster”, but the other half of the book – which is in some ways the more interesting half – is the “Artist”, the story of Tommy Wiseau, writer, producer, director, and star of the “worst movie ever made.” Greg Sestero – co-star of The Room and friend of Wiseau – goes back and forth telling both stories, that of his pre-movie experience meeting, befriended and living with the eccentric Wiseau, and that of the day-to-day making of the world’s greatest bomb turned cult classic, until the two stories eventually meet. The first story reminds me of a book I read last month, Loose Balls, the oral history of the American Basketball Association. What the ABA was to professional sports, The Room is to movie-making. The story of the making of this film contains all the hilarity, wackiness, and absurdity that captures those years of “professional” basketball. I laughed over and over at the sheer insanity of it all. The story of Wiseau, though also funny in many respects, penetrates at a much deeper level. His friendship with Sestero is often heart-warming, but it can also be chilling. At one point Sestero has a mental breakdown as he sees the film The Talented Mr. Ripley and sees the similarity between his relationship with Wiseau and Dickie Greenleaf’s with Ripley. And yet he still becomes roommates with Wiseau after coming to that realization. I suppose that the story of Wiseau and Sestero illustrates that even the most selfish, delusional, and frankly annoying people are people too, and have the capability to be caring and warm, and sometimes feel lonely and hurt, just like everyone else. Sestero tries on multiple occasions to make Wiseau into a sympathetic character, and for brief flashes he succeeds. In the final chapter, he says that Wiseau’s trait as a “sincere dreamer” is “ultimately what redeems his immensely conflicted and complicated darkness.” Make no mistake though – Wiseau is the villain in this story. The pain he puts people through all for his own personal gratification should not be overshadowed by his occasional generosity or vulnerability or by the ultimate bizarre and ironic success of The Room. Late in the story, we learn that Wiseau confided in his mentor, telling him that his dream was to be a movie star. To which the mentor replied, “Well, if that’s the case, make sure you put yourself front and center. Be the star. Make yourself the star. Don’t think about anybody else.” Wiseau later described this as the best advice he has ever received. You can tell that he didn’t apply it only to the movie he created, but to the movie that is his life. It is the attitude that makes Wiseau slightly charming and overwhelmingly repugnant. Read The Disaster Artist to laugh, to cringe, to be shocked again and again, but don’t read it to feel pity towards the possibly sociopathic Tommy Wiseau.

The Modern Family book is a like a clip show (remember those?), light fun for those who have watched from the beginning. The book is broken out by character, with each chapter hitting on memorable lines or scenes featuring the subject of the chapter. As fans of the show no doubt expect, the highlight of the book is Gloria. After all, only she knows that it’s not a dog-eat-dog world. “That doesn’t make any sense! Who wants to live in a world where dogs eat each other? Doggy-dog world is a beautiful world filled with little puppies.”

Finally, a word about the Album Cover Album.  Looking for a good coffee table book about album covers? This isn’t it. It’s a decent enough book, and may have been really neat when originally published in the mid-‘70s, but too much has happened in the world of album covers for a book on the topic to include only the best covers up to the middle of that decade. It may have been too much to ask to get a full update when Album Cover Album was re-published in 2008, but for my money I think you’re better off with one of the many imitators or follow-ups.


[1] Within 24 hours after reading the book I corrected this mistake as well, seeing the Academy Award-winning film, directed by Miloš Forman and starring Jack Nicholson. It’s a very good movie, but despite the best efforts of these talented individuals it proves that it’s impossible to recreate Kesey’s masterpiece.

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