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LitMonkey – June 2014

June 3, 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 nineteenth installment.  Enjoy!

Books I Read:

Books I Purchased:

Books I Borrowed from the Library:

  • “Lost at Sea” (ebook)
  • “Kids These Days”
  • “One More Thing” (ebook)

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Jon Ronson caught my attention with his book The Psychopath Test, where he proved to be both a strong journalist as well as a great writer. For whatever reason, the stories in Lost At Sea mostly weren’t as compelling to me as they seem to be to a lot of reviewers and so I found the book to be a bit of a bore. I don’t mean to sound elitist (after all, I’m the guy who read Embarrassing True Stories and really liked it) but Vanity Fair and GQ stories don’t fascinate me. That isn’t without exception though, and there is one story on Lost At Sea which I can’t stop thinking about.

That story is “Santa’s Little Conspirators”, a suitably odd title for what turns about to be a bit of a sinister tale. Ronson visits the small town of North Pole, Alaska, the Christmas capital of the world. From the outside, the town of North Pole looks pretty much like the town depicted in the Will Ferrell movie Elf. That’s just the face of it though. Once inside, Ronson sees what the façade is built upon. Small-town group-think. A massive gun culture. Community-wide conspiracies. Children who have their romantic notions of Christmas dashed at a very young age. It all results in a school-shooting situation organized by six local teens, one of whom justifies his plans by saying “We were just going to shoot the bad kids.” And by the way – this town really exists, and it really is raising some of our youth. I agree with Linda Holmes who said on a recent Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast that short stories should be adapted into movies. I’d be first in line to see “Santa’s Little Conspirators”. (Read it online here.)

Also in the category of “second book I read by an author” is Drew Perry’s Kids These Days. I read this book because I loved Perry’s first novel, This is Just Exactly Like You, which was quirky, endearing and pretty funny. Kids These Days didn’t live up to the lofty expectations that Perry had established. In a word, it was fine – I liked it well enough, it had its good moments, the characters are developed fairly well, the story is tight. Unfortunately, there just isn’t much there. I’d compare it to a romantic comedy or a sitcom that’s good for a few laughs, makes for a good evening of entertainment, but once its over you forget about it immediately. Not high praise, but not really criticism either. I’d recommend it as an easy breezy beach read.

Actually, it looks like there’s a running theme here. Less Than Zero is the (you guessed it) second book I’ve read from novelist Bret Easton Ellis. Last month I wrote about American Psycho, saying “I can’t understate how bizarre and sick this book is. Bateman is horrible, but the book isn’t frightening in the traditional sense of the word. It’s gripping and gruesome and loathsome in every way that the movie is, squared.” Considering that it was his debut novel Less Than Zero is excellent, but I can’t say that it rises to the level of American Psycho. Zero feels in many ways like a prequel to Psycho, the back story explaining how psychotic mass murderer Patrick Bateman became who he is. Though the protagonist in Zero has a different name, the thought “young Patrick Bateman” was never far from my mind. This is despite the fact that he never kills anyone, never even imagines harming another person. But the nihilism, the endless money and privilege, the lack of morality, responsibility, or empathy for other human beings – these are the environmental factors that could produce a Bateman. Ultimately Less Than Zero is the less satisfying novel, but that’s only because it’s being compared to an all-time great.

Lastly, I read two humor books this month which come from very different sides of the tracks. The first is a debut from a famous actor, whose book was reviewed in the Sunday New York Times Book Review (among many prominent places); the second I received free from the author in exchange for an honest review on Goodreads. When all is said and done though, both B.J. Novak’s One More Thing and Oliver Gaspirtz’s Embarrassing True Stories had me laughing out loud over and over again.

Novak writes mostly very short stories (allowing for 64 stories total) with occasional longer pieces mixed in. The concepts he explores are so unusual that I found myself wanting even more of them, so in that respect I liked the long stories just a little less. Novak thinks about those things that we take for granted and turns them on their head. He asks, “We all think it’s like this, but why can’t it actually be like this?” In most cases this leads to absurd results that are both funny and often thought-provoking. Some of my favorites:

  • “No One Goes To Heaven To See Dan Fogelberg” – The characters get to heaven, where they find concert after concert going on every night from every artist that ever lived. Of course, many of the artists are playing to empty audiences because “No One Goes To Heaven To See Dan Fogelberg.” Sinatra gets a huge audience though, and covers Springsteen, Radiohead, Coldplay, and Beyonce! He also gets a nice surprise at the end!
  • The Something by John Grisham” – Seriously, would anyone blink for a moment if Grisham’s next novel was in fact called The Something?
  • “The Ambulance Driver” – Why are certain people expected to sacrifice themselves for the greater good? Does anyone bother to consider how much it matters in the end? (One or two more people died each yr in Grant County than before, but it was always a number within the statistical margin of error.)
  • The Man Who Invented the Calendar” – So, maybe this is how it happened? Why not? (You can read this one online.)
  • “Closure” – She got it.
  • “The Market Was Down” – And no one knew why. Though everyone has a theory. Sound familiar?
  • “Marie’s Stupid Boyfriend” – I never thought about it, but Novak is right: Who doesn’t play guitar on principle?
  • “Rome” – You go there on vacation; it’s where I pick up my bagels and batteries.

I don’t know if Novak got published because of his fame, but he could have a long career as a writer if he so chose. Definitely my kind of humorist. (A few more excerpts can be found here and here.)

Which brings me to Gaspirtz. If you can handle a little R-rated and scatological humor, this book is for you. Funny, quick, genuinely embarrassing stories that seem like they came from an American Pie movie. The best part about the book may have been the comics interspersed throughout (like this one). A fun bathroom read (or whenever you need a quick break from life).

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