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I Don't Care About Your Band


What I Learned from Indie Rockers, Trust Funders, Pornographers, Faux Sensitive Hipsters, Felons, and Other Guys I've Dated
by Julie Klausner

This is the kind of book you read when you think you've been watching too much TV lately, but don't actually want to read a book. Which is to say: short-ish, shallow-ish, funny and easy to digest. Julie Klausner has rotten taste in men, "I've found a really good guy, really this time!" pseudo-epilogue notwithstanding, and her pain is your entertainment. Oh, spoiler alert!

There actually isn't much for me to identify with in this book, but that's kind of part of the point. The litany of Poor Life Choices played for laughs works best for me when there isn't a shred of self-recognition to spoil the fun, and about the only thing I have in common with Klausner is my possession of a vagina.

My vagina and I post-it noted the following pages:
Meanwhile, I know way more women than girls. There's a whole generation of us who rode on the wings of feminism's entitlement like it was a Pegasus with cornrows, knowing how smart we were and how we could be anything. p. xi (Okay, what? I laughed at that image, but I think there's something about it that I'm missing.)
Colin was also, incidentally, endowed with the most enormous penis I'd ever seen in my life, an appendage on behalf of which I actually had to run errands. I remember buying Magnum brand condoms at Duane Reade with a twinkle in my eye like Gene Kelly's while he splashed in the puddles outside Debbie Reynolds's house. p. 82

Che's Afterlife


The Legacy of an Image
By Michael Casey

I was just cleaning up my to-read list, and deleted the entry for this book. Usually I’ll include a little note about where/how I found out about something. Typically it’s a link back to the review or interview that piqued my interest. In this case it was a blog post. About how great the book’s cover is. That should have been a hint.

Though it purports to be a history of how an Alberto Korda photograph of a young Che Guevara became one of the most recognized and iconized images on the planet, Casey seems to know how impossible a task that is (though he could have spent more time on the Irish artist Jim Fitzpatrick's role in the story - his duotone rendition of the image is pretty clearly the most popular and heavily-reproduced version, in part because he declined to assert copyright over the image) and instead opts for a mix of travelogue (Cuba, Argentina, Bolivia, Ireland, I-forget-where-else, but enough places to make me thoroughly envious of his research budget) and biography (of Korda and Che, primarily, but I learned a fair bit about Castro, too) to enlarge what is too viral and sprawling a narrative to be told in any coherent way.

It's not a bad book, but it's light on the things I was looking for and heavy on what I wasn't. Early discussion of the Korda photograph's strengths as a piece of art gives eventual way to quick-hit Che-spotting around the world (beer! condoms! neo-Nazi icon!). Even this anecdata is less enjoyable than it ought to be, owing to Casey's overwrought prose. I'd here provide one of the many examples I noted while reading, but when I started to type one of them up, I got furious all over again, and this blog is supposed to be my freaking hobby, so screw it. In some ways the book reads better as a Che biography told through the prism of the Korda image than as an analysis of the image itself, but since I was interested in the latter I came away rather disappointed. That said, the volume of notes below should suggest how fun the ride was, and why I kept reading in spite of some sentences that required three or four passes to parse.

Notes!
p. 12 In fact, left-wing politics is so subordinate to the global capitalist system that it has itself become a tradable “product” within it. This is especially so with the symbols and images of the left – no more so than with the Che icon.
p. 38 We even have a scientific measure of Che’s expression, courtesy of University of Amsterdam researcher Nicu Sebe, who recently applied an “affective computing” technique for reading people’s emotions to portraits of famous figures. (Sebe claimed to have solved the Mona Lisa mystery: She was 93 percent happy and 7 percent disgusted.)
p. 126 A prominent figure in Paris at this time was Jean-Paul Sartre. He regularly turned up at the occupied Odeon Theater to inspire students; around this time he also made his now-famous pronouncement that Che was “the most complete man of our age.” Years later those words would appear engraved on the back of pirated copies of Swatch’s Revolućion line of Che watches.
p. 188 …Evo Morales, a socialist president [of Bolivia] who hangs a Korda Che made from coca leaves in his office. (I was really disappointed not to have this image included in the color signatures bound into the book with examples of Che imagery from around the world.)
p. 231 …if Obama can give Brand USA the lift it desperately needs, Che may lose some of his appeal. (Casey is a journalist, not an art historian, so I suppose he can be forgiven for failing to notice the obvious allusion [even more obvious in this blog post] to the Korda Che in Shepard Fairey’s HOPE poster. I'm not going to do that forgiving, mind you, but it's possible.)
p. 251 …mainstream filmmakers have struggled to bring to the screen the most polemical part of Che’s life… Even in 1969, for the filming of Che! – in which Omar Sharif’s Guevara emerges as a violent psychopath who manipulates a buffoonlike Fidel Castro (Jack Palance) – …the director’s plans…lapsed into a widely panned farce.
p. 260 Filmmakers Adirana Marino and Douglas Duarte even caught neo-Nazis in Germany wearing Che T-shirts and explaining why they do so.

Magic Bus


On the Hippie Trail from Istanbul to India

by Rory MacLean

I'm glad I didn't switch the order of this book and Do Travel Writers Go To Hell? - because this one left me a little wistful for an age before guidebooks and a backpacker district in every capital, longing a bit for an authenticity that probably never existed in the first place, or was way too dodgy and dirty for me to have been interested in anyway. Thomas Kohnstamm's tales of hostel hackery would have just been an extra rude gesture to my daydreaming.

Why yes, I am trying to figure out what to do with my vacation time for the year - why do you ask?

Apparently while most of the hippies were getting politicized or high in the 60s and 70s, a significant minority really did drop out, opting for overseas adventures over Woodstock or the Paris '68 whatever-you-want-to-call-it or, in some cases I'm guessing, the draft. I happen to be acquainted with one of them, a guy my boyfriend used to work for. He's a trained physicist who taught in and/or bummed around several Central Asian countries in the 70s and now imports and wholesales tea. I'd like to think that all the denizens of the Hippie Trail were as  respectful and insightful as him, but MacLean makes sure not to oversell the revolutionary impact of the travelers he writes about* while still making clear the impact the phenomenon had both home and abroad. The book is a mix of travel narrative (MacLean travels, to what extent he can, the length of the original Hippie Trail, visiting countries with an eye toward seeking out lasting traces of the travelers' presence); and history, of both the Trail, and other noteworthy western travelers who passed through the same places, but the best parts of it are context-free moments or observations, like this occurrence on a Turkish bus:
The Dogubeyazit Express, a fiery metal coffin on wheels, rides low on its tail and stops every hundred meters whether passengers are waiting or not. An aged farmer hobbles down the aisle, hands reaching out to steady him. A baby is passed from passenger to passenger, held and kissed by strangers. (p. 64)

Along the way, MacLean assesses the impact the travelers on the Hippie Trail (he calls them 'Intrepids' after their own appellation) had on the countries they visited, the countries they fled, and the very concept of travel. Tony and Maureen Wheeler, of Lonely Planet fame, are among the Intrepids he writes about and interviews. It's probably not hard to extrapolate out from there if you want to get a sense of how different an experience it is to visit, say, Turkey today than it was in the 60s or 70s. The very beginning of MacLean's trip is Istanbul and he heads east from there. I've only seen a small portion of the latter-day Hippie Trail (basically as far as Cappadocia, in central Turkey) and, frankly, I'm glad that I could arrive there after 36 straight hours of plane-tram-bus travel and be greeted with a huge breakfast and hot shower at a hotel used to receiving guests who show up on the morning bus from Nevshehir. But it's not hard to tell that the transformation of a town like Goreme into a tourism center has been a mixed bag. And the beautiful, traditionally-styled hamam in town has a sauna, and is priced to attract tourists. An Australian was staffing the front desk when I arrived there, after a long day of riding a bicycle, rented from an outfit that also had motorcycles and ATVs, around the region with some friends. My reaction to the book, in simple terms, was a neutral one. Things were different back then. Better in some ways, worse in others. They'll be different in the future. Last year I went to Vietnam on vacation. Maybe in thirty years there will be cheap guesthouses in Baghdad. I really really hope so. Because this passage kind of killed me:

Back in 1964 when the first wave of Intrepids hit town, the Afghans didn't have the facilities. But the surfeit of hospitality and the nights when the moon spilt silver over the city's hills far outshone the absence of creature comforts. Visitors felt at home and extended their stay, not only because they contracted amoebic dysentery. Then, a Year of Tourism was declared in 1967. The promotional posters trumpeted tourism as a "Passport to Peace." [gawd] When the second wave of backpackers washed across their land between 1970 and 1979, Afghan resourcefulness had filled the gap. You like pancakes for breakfast? No problem, we give you pancakes. You want music while you eat? Then we smuggle in the latest pop cassettes. You like muesli? We make it for you, whatever it is. It was an honest exchange. A golden era. But it transformed culture into a tourist experience. By the mid-seventies, an astonishing 90,000 visitors a year came to the country. (p. 149)

This Flickr pool of photos from Intrepids killed me too, but in a totally different way.

* "A travel writer," he replies, lifting his interest but not his voice. "Then we're comrades-in-arms." He hands me his business card. Tourism Consultant. "But I have little time for the sixties. The flower children were as simple as their critics are unpleasant."
"In Cappadocia they seem to have opened the door to prosperity," I tell him, mentioning the stories of Abdullah and Bayram.
"The hash-and-hepatitis trail did spawn an industry that packaged the world," he admits, folding his hands in his lap. "I should know. I stand near the start of that trail." (p. 60)

Notes!
p. 73 "'Paradise' comes from an old Persian world meaning 'walled garden'," she added.
p. 95 "If you do not allow me to drive you I will eat sorrow," said Sahar, my lean, persuasive taxi-driver.
p. 116 [In Afghanistan] A cobbler sells single shoes for one-legged mine victims. Barefoot children play a game like marbles with the vertebrae of small animals.

Free for All


Joe Papp, The Public, and the Greatest Theater Story Ever Told

By Kenneth Turan and Joseph Papp

The subtitle of this book is probably a pretty fitting tribute to Joseph Papp, who died in 1991. (Kenneth Turan's first draft of this oral history was rejected by Papp, and was only published last year, with the permission of Papp's widow.) Its audacity and braggadocio is probably not quite the truth, but I don't know that I could name a counterexample. Page after page recounts anecdotes of Papp's force of personality and large-scale ambition. His successes were spectacular (A Chorus Line! Hair! The goddamn New York Shakespeare Festival!) but plenty of failures, near-misses and ill-conceived over-reaches are documented as well. And Papp's shortcomings get plenty of coverage, too - wrecked relationships, stubborn allegiance to goofball ideas (This production of Pirates of Penzance: WE SHOULD STAGE IT WITHOUT PIRATES!) leaving a final impression of a guy whose strengths were his infectious passion and charisma: A born producer with the soul of an artist who may have been at his best charming rich donors and swooping into stumbling rehearsals to shake things up and then move on to whatever new project had recently stirred his imagination.

Many of Turran's sources are famous in their own right, often due to their early work with the Shakespeare Festival or the Public, and one of the undeniable pleasures of the book is stumbling across the reminiscences of James Earl Jones ("Jimmy" to his peers at the Delacorte theater) or Diane Lane (heartbroken as a teenager by one of Papp's characteristic snubbings when she opted to film a movie in France with Laurence Olivier instead of stick with a Public Theater production to Broadway) or Kevin Kline (who comes across like the dorkiest theater snob ever - in a nice way) or Sam Shepard (who does not live up to his bad-ass cowboy image, I'm sad to report*). Just as much fun are the thoughts of Hey! It's That Guy!s like William Atherton (the baddie in Real Genius) or Cliff DeYoung (who I just remembered was the meanie sherriff in Flashback, a lesser Dennis Hopper movie that I liked a lot because I was twelve when I saw it, and you like a lot of dumb stuff when you're twelve) showing up in pretty heavy-duty Serious Theater, Usually With Politics (because that's how the Public rolls).

What I came away from this book with mostly, though, was a renewed sense of gratitude that I figured out before I finished college that I wasn't cut out for theater. I did a bunch of stuff in high school, onstage (rarely) and off (most enthusiastically) and was in a college program that was just short of a conservatory on the moderately fast track to a career in stage management, which might be the most un-artistic job you can have in theater. I realized sometime during my sophomore year that I kind of hated hanging out with actors, didn't much enjoy working on creative projects in a collaborative environment, and basically just wasn't ambitious and driven enough to make a career in the arts. So I changed my major to publishing! Ha! The joke was on me when I ended up doing software project management for publishing companies for a number of years, which is sort of like stage management but even more boring (but, thankfully, also more remunerative). Now I just go to plays, and it's telling, I think, that my reaction to a lot of this book was to wish, not that I had been involved in any of the productions, which all sounded more-or-less miserable and/or insufferable, but that I had been able to see them as a member of an audience. I've tracked down a few American Playhouse-type recordings, and lots of scripts, which I guess will have to do.

* This section is a little weird, actually - it's about a production of True West at the Public that was such a fiasco that director Bob Woodruff (lately of the ART here in Cambridge) and Shepart both basically disowned. I always thought that the Steppenwolf production (with John Malkovich and Gary Sinise) was the first production of the show, but it was actually staged first in San Francisco, and then in New York (starring Tommy Lee Jones and Peter freakin' Boyle), and then in Chicago. The Chicago production moved to New York for a really lengthy and successful run, but it wasn't the first production staged there. More history here.

Notes!
p. 82 "Okay," I said. "It seems really exciting, and almost impossible, and therefore worth doing. But we've got to have costumes." (Stuart Vaughan)
p. 154 And then he suggested Joe Papp and the theater in Central Park, and I liked the idea. After all, I was terribly interested in the park. I've lived all my life on the park, I walk through the park, I've even been mugged in the park. (George Delacorte)
p. 167 When we were doing Hamlet in the park in 1975, with John Lithgow playing Laertes, he tripped as he was jumping into the grave in the fight scene and he creamed his knee. An ambulance came, and once we were certain John was all right, I was sitting in the auditorium with Joe and I heard him say, "Well, you can't make a Hamlet without breaking some legs." (Sam Waterston)
p. 184 I met Jerry in a musical against capital punishment we were both cast in called Hang Down Your Head and Die. (James Rado - co-author of Hair)

The Snakehead


An Epic Tale of the Chinatown Underworld and the American Dream

by Patrick Radden Keefe

The cover of this book uses the outline of a snake's body, in six tight curves, to crop a night-time photo of what I took to be NYC's Chinatown, and the story it tells is just as complicated and twisty-turny. That it's also highly readable and, in the end, tells a pretty cohesive story is to Patrick Radden Keef's credit, because I've been staring at a blank text field for a while now, trying to think of a way to summarize the book's contents and it's hard. What's making it harder is that one of the things I took away from the book was a deeper understanding of migrant labor patterns and illegal immigration into the US, and so of course I'd like to find a way to draw some connection between the things I learned from The Snakehead and the dumb-ass new law in Arizona that empowers state and local police to enforce immigration laws in the crudest and most prone-to-exploitation manner possible. Do I need to bother? People want freedom of movement, and the more I put off getting my passport renewed this year because I'm ticked off about how how I have to pay the government (too much!) money just to have permission to leave my own country, the more I think I sympathize with the people who simply cross borders by the side door. Too bad for me I prefer to travel by plane, preferably without a stopover in a detention facility on arrival.

Anyway, though this book was presented and marketed as more of a true-crime narrative than anything else, it's really a story about immigration. Specifically, Chinese immigration, and though Keefe is writing about a rather modern development in China/US immigration patterns, he takes the time to describe the history of the phenomenon, beginning with the post-Civil War labor shortage that led to active importation of 'Coolie' labor for, most notably, railroad construction. Also this: "Young Chinese men began abandoning their villages and leaving for America in droves. Two thousand arrived in 1848; four years later, 20,000 entered through the port of San Francisco alone. But for all their numbers and the vastness of the nation in which they were born, the nineteenth-century Chinese who came to the Golden Mountain originated from a remarkably small corner of China - a handful of counties on the west side of the Pearl River Delta, around the southern city of Canton [or, as it's known today, Guangzhou]. In fact, until the 1960s, most Chinese in America could trace their roots to an area roughly half the size of the state of Delaware." p. 21 Shifting attitudes toward immigrants, exacerbated by generally-crappy attitudes toward non-whites over the following century tended to result in insular self-sustaining communities of Chinese in America, though there are Chinatowns in pretty much every city in the world. (There's a great interlude about some would-be immigrants stranded in Kenya by a dead boat - when a replacement vessel arrived, most continued their journey, but some decided to stick around, as the restaurant they'd opened in Mombasa had turned into quite a success. p. 141) A big part of that insular immigrant culture was cultivated by tongs: organizations most publicly recognized for their involvement in vice and organized crime, but also civic pillars that provided welcome wagon-style assistance and commercial services to members of a community who couldn't count on, say, being able to open an account at a local bank.*

So, that's the background-background. The real background is that patterns of migration out of China changed in the 1980s, and obviously this had its own impact on the Chinese-American immigrant community. As more migrants from the Fujian province of China arrived in the US (a tenfold increase in NYC between 1960 and the mid-80s [p. 63]) the established order, vice and all, was upset, and the tongs were supplanted by turf-conscious street gangs in the more familiar mold. And that brings us to the titular snakehead,** known in her community as Sister Ping. Shop owner, underground banker and, above all, human smuggler par excellence. Keefe uses the story of a shipload of would-be migrants who ran aground off Long Island in 1993 as the frame for Sister Ping's life and work, and the larger cultural and economic trends that influenced migration patterns (including American asylum policy)*** if not, perhaps, an epic exploration of the American Dream as promised in the subtitle. Keefe also follows the paths of the ship's passengers as a group, through detention and incarceration (where one group gained some notoriety by creating papier mache sculptures that eventually landed in pretty prominent art collections) and deportation (which sometimes was only a setback in eventually successful attempts to enter the US.)

As I said, lots and lots of threads that actually form an eye-opening and enjoyable whole that made me really crave a three-dollar tofu banh mi from a little takeout place on Harrison street in Boston.

This book made it on the to-read list via the New York Times, which published two reviews, one positive, and one (by comparison, at least) negative.

* Dating back to the nineteenth century, when the Chinese in America were mainly male sojourners, the tongs oversaw the vice industries: the brothels, the opium dens, and above all the gambling parlors. These activities were just another business interest, albeit an especially lucrative one, and to stay profitable and orderly they needed to be policed with a firm hand. The tongs did this, and did it well, and for tolerating and regulating the unsavory side of the local economy, they drew substantial commissions, which they funneled back into the community. In this manner these fraternal organizations became deeply entrenched in San Francisco and New York, welcoming migrants to the United States and accruing the loyalty of generations of new arrivals. They became a dominant fact in Chinatown's political and economic landscape - the bedrock of the local civil society. And before long they had history on their side. After all, the two oldest tongs in New York, the On Leong and the Hip Sing, predated the Communist government in Beijing by half a century. When New York's tongs were first established, an emperor ruled China. (p. 58-59)
** Keefe goes into the (murky) etymology a bit, but I'm more intrigued by the notion of the Chinese Snakehead as compared to the Mexican Coyote, and whether other migrant groups have similarly totemic/talismanic terms for the people who organize human smuggling operations.
*** It was said in New York's Chinatown that some of the actual student leaders from Beijing, who had been offered asylum and prestigious fellowships at universities in the United States, would come to town from time to time to make a little money, charging would-be asylees a few hundred dollars to pose alongside them for Polaroid pictures, which could then be included in an application as proof of involvement in the democracy movement. (p. 161)
There's also a lot about the use of China's One Child policy as a justification for asylum claims (and how asylum claims got caught up in the neverending American debate about abortion) that's really fascinating.

Some miscellaneous notes:
...Tobing resurfaced off the coast of Washington State, when the Coast Guard stopped a sailboat he was skippering, which happened to contain five tons of Cambodian marijuana. "Why Smuggle Pot to NW?" the local press wondered. "Authorities Puzzled: There's Plenty. Here." (p. 206)
Toward the end of the 1990s, local entrepreneurs in Chinatown, many of them Fujianese, were beginning to realize that the labor market in Chinese restaurants in Boston and New York was very fluid - that demand seemed to fluctuate not just seasonally but weekly, and owners could never predict in advance how many people they would need to wait on tables or fire the woks. Soon a no-frills passenger van service was shuttling restaurant workers from New York to Boston and back again for a few dollars each way, allowing undocumented busboys and dishwashers to save on the cost of a ticket and avoid having to navigate their way from Port Authority or South Station to their ultimate destination. The Chinatown bus, as it came to be called, formed a direct transit link from one Chinatown to the other, from the ornamental arch on Harrison avenue in Boston to Confucius Plaza or the foot of the Manhattan Bridge.
The Fujianese are great imitators of business ideas that seem to work, and before long there were multiple Chinese-owned minivans tearing along the highways between New York and Boston, and new routes were devised to the Chinatowns in Philadelphia and Washington, DC. The proprietors invested in full-sized air-conditioned coaches and gave their companies names like Fung Wah Transport Vans, New Century, Dragon Coach, and TravelPack. A price war between several of the companies drove the cost of a ticket lower and lower, until even on the larger buses, the one-way fare to Boston was a mere $10 - a 200-mile journey for the price of a cross-town cab. As word spread of the cheap new bus route that managed so dramatically to undercut Greyhoud and Peter Pan, college kids began entering Chinatown and queuing up with their Walkmen and backpacks to join the restaurant workers for the trip...Eventually mighty Greyhound was obliged to slash its prices on routes where it was competing with the Chinatown bus. (p. 264-265)
THANK YOU FUJIANESE IMMIGRANT COMMUNITY! 

Do Travel Writers Go to Hell?


A Swashbuckling Tale of High Adventures, Questionable Ethics & Professional Hedonism

by Thomas Kohnstamm

Raise your hand if you both (a) have done much traveling that didn't involve package tours (b) were the least bit surprised by the shocking! revelations of this book.

Yeah.

In fact, Kohnstamm comes off pretty well in this book from my perspective - it's not much of a shock that a 'glamour' job like writing for Lonely Planet pays absolute shit, nor is it surprising that savvy business-owners in tourist destinations know how to game the nominally-journalistic professional standards of the guidebook game, nor did I have any trouble believing that a marginally-employed guy who'd drop his job, girlfriend and Manhattan apartment for a free plane ticket to Brazil and a pretty insulting advance/research budget is also a guy who uses drugs recreationally and likes to get laid. Quelle horreur! If anything, Kohnstamm seems to have been a more conscientious researcher than whoever updated the Panama guide that correlated with my 2005 trip there. I was told half a dozen times in one town about the writer/researcher who did the update entirely by phone, relying on the owners of established businesses to share news about new hotels and restaurants (yeah, right). This was good for me in that I got a really nice hotel room for way cheaper than it would have been if the place had been included in LP, and found unexpected fun more than once while trying to find a long-gone business, but I happened to have done absolutely no research for that trip (bought a plane ticket Tuesday afternoon, left Thursday morning) and could've, in theory, gotten into some trouble if I relied too much on advice that was out of date - especially on matters of safety. And the region of Brazil assigned to Kohnstamm is a hell of a lot bigger than the entire country of Panama. At least the guy tried.

But it's more than apparent that he's less a writer than a charismatic bon vivant with enough of a travel resume and academic familiarity with Latin America and its languages to be a moderately successful hack. Parlaying his arguable lack of professional ethics into a big-boy book deal is the sort of thing you'd expect from the guy after reading his book, and it's hard to work up much of a snit over his failure to accomplish what I always figured was a pretty impossible task. (I tend to prefer guidebooks written by permanent residents of a city or country largely for this reason. Yeah, the hotel reviews suck, but I stay at crappy ones anyway.)

I read this book last week when I got called for jury duty. The remote suburban courthouse I was summoned to was a 2-hour public transit trip from my neighborhood, and most of the day consisted of sitting around waiting for my name to be called, so I was able to start and finish it in a single day. In a way, the circumstances gave me an extra bit of sympathy for Kohnstamm, since I imagine some of the Brazilian towns he was expected to research and hype were just as worth visiting as Woburn fucking Massachusetts, and just as much of a pain in the ass to get to. If I ended up in the same third world expat-targeted bar as Kohnstamm, I would totally tag along with him. Dude seems like he'd be fun to hang out with. No shared hostel rooms though - I bet his STDs have STDs.

This book followed on the heels of Chuck Thompson's Smile When You're Lying, a different sort of backstage look at travel writing (Thompson was more of a magazine features guy than a guidebook guy - there's a big difference) and I'm totally gonna read that one, too. I might even read it before my next round of jury duty. I've got three years before I have to look out for the summons...

Notes:
For my generation, the first that has always had a computer at home and that considered video games a normal childhood pastime, life on the road is one of the few things that actually overwhelm our tolerance for stimuli and shock us into the here and now. (p. 57)
Though skipped over in the movie version of The Beach, much of Alex Garland's famed travel novel is about a young man's search for authenticity outside of his own culture. The narrator, Richard, admits that he wants to observe harsh poverty abroad. He wants to see something raw and primal, something that you can't experience in a culture of insurance, HMOs, and welfare. The Beach is also a critique of modern "guidebook" travel, and the narrator seeks in vain to find a utopia, a place culturally uncontaminated by other tourists. However, Garland's narrator has almost no contact with Thai people beyond being offered "banan' pancakes" during breakfast in hostels. He meets up with two French backpackers and heads off to a national park to immerse himself in a commune of like-minded Westerners whose idea of roughing it includes a Nintendo Game Boy, an endless supply of weed, and a motorboat.
But I understand what happens to Richard and many other backpackers: it's an easy trap to fall into. You go to another country and rather than trying to understand the nuances and textures of that culture, you end up spending your time with a roving band of people like yourself. Fuck the whole backpacker scene. Even the people who consider themselves master travelers, who have been to hostels all over the world, are often just neocolonial naifs. (p. 86-7)
(I moved recently, to a smaller place than my last apartment, and did a major purge of books. I got a copy of The Beach ages ago, before I ever started traveling outside North America, and hesitated over chucking it. Rereading it last month after actually visiting some of the places that Garland writes about, or more precisely the types of places he writes about, made it a much more interesting read. I ended up hanging onto the book, and agree with Kohnstamm's take on it.)
On witnessing some pretty unmistakable 'domestic' violence in a bar: Half of these people are probably related and would stand up for the guy, no matter what. I learned that lesson the hard way in a beach town in Montenegro. where as a teenager I wound up getting my ass kicked in front of my own mother by some poor man's Dolph Lundgren who probably went on to work in a Bosnian ethnic-cleansing camp. Maybe this sort of spousal-abuse shit happens every night in Atins. (p. 239-40)

Men Who Hate Women


by Stieg Larsson
(That's the original title of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I read that last fall, mostly on a boat in Halong Bay, Vietnam. I read the sequel, The Girl Who Played With Fire, in much less exotic surroundings, a couple months later.)

I've gone back and forth a half dozen times on these books. They're good in that I found them hard to put down, and memorable (moreso for character - especially Lisbeth Salander, she of the titular tattoo - than plot or style). After I returned ...Played With Fire to the library, I actually reserved a copy of ...Dragon Tattoo so I could read it again (I sold my mass market paperback copy to a used bookstore in Hanoi for 20,000 dong, which I spent on beer). There's some undeniably satisfying moments where utter creeps get exactly what's coming to them and the good guys win. The 'good guys' are a punky antisocial girl with a photographic memory and a vengeful mean streak, Lisbeth Salander, and a crusade-y journalist, Mikael Blomkvist, modeled more-or-less on Larsson himself. The dynamic between these two characters is well-balanced - they're a genuine team, each having the chance to save the other's ass in turn. Salander, in particular, is a great character - a complicated, prickly, smart vaguely-criminal vaguely-superheroic bad-ass who is poorly-served and underestimated by the society she lives in. (This photo of the actress who plays her in the Swedish films based on the books is pretty close to how I imagined the character looking and how I've always wanted my hair to behave.) There's something of a point to all of it, suggested by the Swedish title of the first book and the eyebrow-raising statistics that head each section, meant to demonstrate that for all of Sweden's reputation as a pretty idyllic (albeit cold) place, it's also got its share of black marks, not least of which is a pretty appalling amount of sexual violence and misogyny.

Which is where I start to waver on all of it. Because though it's pretty clear Larsson was writing with the intent to expose and condemn that violence and misogyny, he's also written a couple books (the third has yet to hit America, though apparently a couple copies of the UK edition are circulating in the library system - I'm like 600th in line) that try to play it both ways - having his shocking! depraved! cake and eating it too, like a literary Law & Order: SVU. Though Larsson doesn't glamorize (or, in my opinion, sexualize) the violence in these books, he's still writing stories in which depictions of violence against women are used, let's face it, for entertainment. These are potboilers, not journalistic exposés or dissertations. The fact that they feature a number of women fighting back in various ways against violence directed at them, often with great success, mitigates this, but not enough to make me totally comfortable with it all. It beats hell out of torture porn, but it's still kinda icky. In some ways, the filling-in of Salander's backstory in the second book comes along with some real back-tracking on the feminist bona fides (such as they are) earned by the first. What's sort of interesting is that few punches are pulled when describing sexualized violence, but actual sex is treated in a much more circumspect way. Very un-explicit consensual sex, though there's quite a lot of it. I'm not sure what that means in the overall "Is This Okay With Me?" calculus, but it stuck out.

And oh lord does the prose suck. Pages and pages of grocery lists and inventories, bloodless recitation of computer specs and every ingredient of every sandwich. I know fuck all about network security or hacking, but the passages describing some of Salander's extra-legal investigative techniques strain credulity. I know more about the exact cost of various household goods and foodstuffs from this book than I would've gotten out of Lonely Planet: Sweden. It's not Twilight-Bad, but it's still pretty bad.

Hurry up, Minuteman Library System patrons, I want to read the third book so I can feel conflicted all over again!

Some interesting spoiler-y discussion at Feministing. The last comment is particularly interesting.
Though I disagree with some aspects of this review, it gets at why I felt so uncomfortable with these books, even as I raced through them.

Sag Harbor


by Colson Whitehead

(For what it's worth, one of the books I didn't post about over the summer was also by Whitehead. John Henry Days is fantastic. A really great companion piece to Steel Drivin' Man, it also has some great things to say about the nature of work without being off-puttingly polemic.)

Leaving aside the ill-advisedness of reading a book set over the course of a not-so-fateful summer in the absolute depths of winter, this was pure pleasure to read. One of the nice things about Whitehead's writing is his restraint. This is nominally a coming-of-age story, the events of an adolescent summer in Sag Harbor, an upper middle-class black Hamptons enclave, set in the early 80s. But there's no high drama or "And That Was When Everything Changed" ponderousness. On the last page of the book, Whitehead, in the voice of his 15-year-old narrator Ben (please, don't call him Benji anymore) all but washes his hands of the notion in the process of reaching for it, pointing out that "It didn't seem like that much time had passed, but I had to be a bit smarter. Just a little. Look at the way I was last Labor Day. An idiot! Fifteen looks at fourteen and says, That guy was an idiot. And fifteen looks at eight and says, That guy knew so little. Why can't fiteen and three-quarters look back and fifteen and a half and say That guy didn't know anything. Because it was true. ... I could do it. It was going to be a great year. I was sure of it. Isn't it funny? The way the mind works?" (p. 273)

Though this is not really the sort of book that can be 'spoiled,' it would not be giving too much away to say that last year was not so great for Benji, and there is little evidence to suggest that next year would be much different. Benji's a Manhattan kid, in a 'Cosby' family (podiatrist dad, Nestle in-house counsel mom) attending prep school and weekend bar mitzvahs ("Every bar or bat mitzvah should have at least one black kid with a yarmulke hovering on his Afro - it's a nice visual joke, let's just get that out of the way..." p. 7), playing Dungeons & Dragons,  rocking a Bauhaus t-shirt all summer and contemplating whether he could get away with combat boots under the school's dress code. He sealed his social doom early in freshman year by yakking in mixed company about Fangoria magazine. For nine months of the year his peers are well-off white kids with whom he has little in common, and in the summers, his peers are well-off black kids, whith whom he has only a bit more in common. A couple generations removed from Strivers Row, they're the grandchildren of the segregation-era black professionals who built their own summer homes and social networks. They are "good kids," college-bound and well-mannered, working fast food summer jobs in part to build character, and raised to be a bit contemptuous of poor blacks who they saw on the nightly news more often than the corner (though they occasionally turn up at family reunions too.)

The book is mostly slice-of-life, highly evocative of a place I don't really know and a time I only sort-of do, and a place in society I can only guess at. Like Whitehead's other books, it's not about race per se, but is nonetheless a highly nuanced and uncommon take on the subject. Uncommon? Maybe that's not the word. What I'm trying to get at is that despite the fact that I knew plenty of middle-class (and higher) black kids growing up, they're still as rare as unicorns on TV and in (mass marketed) films. Benji (and, by extension, Colson Whitehead) seems more like my peers than, to go for the most obvious example, Precious, but his particular version of 'the black experience' doesn't seem to get much play. Which is too bad - it's endearing and relatable and thoughtful and funny.

The New York Times review does a better job getting at the heart of this book than I do, which is as it should be, because, you know, Janet Maslin wrote it.

Notes!
"...Mrs. Finkelstein always seemed glad to have me around. Sending their daughter to a fancy private school was a betrayal of core values, paying tuition when you were supposed to support local public schools being in traitorous equivalence with eating grapes when you were supposed to boycott grapes. Those days, every nonunionized grape was a tear squeezed out of the eye of a migrant worker's child." p. 8

"I was one of those dullards who thought that 'Just be yourself' was the wisdom of the ages, the most calming piece of advice I had ever heard, and acted accordingly. It enabled these words, for example, to escape my mouth: 'I can't wait for Master of Horror George A. Romero to make another film. Fangoria magazine - still the best horror and sci-fi magazine around if you ask me - says he has trouble raising funding, but Ithink Hollywood is just scared of what he has to say.'" p. 24

"The trend that summer was toward grammatical acrobatics, the unlikely collage. One smashed a colorful and evocative noun or proper noun into a pejorative, gluing them together with an -in' verb. I'm not sure of the syntactical parentag eof the -in' verbs, so I'll just call them the -in' verbs. Verbal noun, gerundlike creature, cog in the adjectival machine, who knew - as was the case with some of the people in my living room, there was a little uncertainty in the bloodlines. 'Lookin'' was a common -in' verb. Like so:
[This is a hand-written chart in the book. It's cute]
MODIFIER'IN VERBOBJECT
Angela Davis Motherfucker
GorbachevLookin'Bitch
George Jefferson Nigger
(p. 41)

I found this to be a novel and interesting take on the lack of diversity in television:
"I knew white kids in school whose parents didn't let them watch TV, these urchins with scabbed knees with always had their hands out for crumbs when you mentioned Potsie or Chachi. Still meet white people who crow 'We don't let our kids watch television.' Can't say I've ever heard a black person say that. Maybe I should travel in different circles. Perhaps one day, as the forces of racial progress transform every corner of our nation - can you hear it, the inspirational 'overcome' music? - we will cross the color line in TV prohibitions. What black person didn't like laughing at the shenanigans white people got up to on TV? White people were black camp, our native kitsch; white sitcoms magnified the campiness to grotesque proportions. Hug. Talk it out. I'm here for you. What kind of shit was that?" p. 186

"The Cosby Show cornered us, forcing us to reconsider our position. That was some version of ourselves on the screen there. After so long. My mother told us that when she was growing up, whenever a black face appeared on television, you ran through the house to tell everyone, and they dropped what they were doing and gathered around the RCA. If you had time, you hit the phone to spread the word. You could plan your day around it - Jet kept a list of upcoming appearances of black people on television, no matter how small. Nat King Cole, Diahann Carroll in Julia. Make some room on the couch to verify that you actually existed. My generation had Good Times (six seasons) and Baby I'm Back (one-fourth of a season), shows that honestly depicted how the black community lived in this country. Like, what to do when the heat goes off in the projects in the middle of winter. How to sort thinks out when your deadbeat husband returns after seven yars with a jaunty 'Baby, I'm back!' Hence the title. The practical matters of the black day-to-day, don'cha know. Me and Reggie and Elena turned in, making room on the couch to verify that we didn't exist, while my father restrained himself from kicking in the set: That's not how we live." p. 187

Tags:

The Late Shift


Letterman, Leno, & The Network Battle for the Night
by Bill Carter

First, the obligatory mea culpa that absolutely nobody cares about: I did not become functionally illiterate late last summer, but I did fail to diligently record my reading habits here for a good string of months. I'm hoping to kickstart the habit again. I know some folks (used to) read this, but I actually have kept up with this blog largely for my own purposes, and I'm annoyed with myself for having to hang onto the bookmarks and scrap paper where I loyally jotted notes on books I read for half a year and never posted about.

Now, the reason why I had my local library dredge this up from the reserve stacks should be obvious, right? Like a lot of people who didn't actually watch late night TV shows, but enjoy drama and spectacular public screwups, I was totally riveted by the NBC scheduling/Leno vs Conan shitfight last month.* Back when the Leno/Letterman thing played out I didn't follow the events very closely, but still had a very deeply-held opinion on the matter. Letterman all the way. I didn't watch much of late night TV shows back then, either, but I'd seen enough of each man to know who my sympathies lay with. Reading this book didn't change my opinion one bit** but I did find myself reinterpreting the events from a perspective that was totally alien to me back when it actually happened: Office politics. I'm serious!

An oft-repeated bit of "How To Be Great At Your Job" advice is that an unwritten part of every job description is "Make things easier for your boss." There are some people who get that advice and think "Yeah, that's a great idea!" and they go out and do it, just like they join the party-planning committee. There are some people who get that advice and think that it seems like cheating, to say nothing of weirdly sycophantic and gross, and do not even attend committee-planned parties. Person #1, obviously, has a lot in common with Jay Leno. When he was the permanent guest host of the Tonight Show, he did things like visit affiliates to shake hands, suck up, cut ribbons, and tell jokes at local charity car washes. He showed up whenever and wherever he was asked to be by NBC. (It should be noted that he did this stuff largely on the advice of his then-manager, who nearly torpedoed him once he actually got the Tonight Show, but that's a whole 'nother story.) Basically, he busted ass, and a lot of that ass-busting was not in service of being better at his job per se (though he does a lot of that too - performing standup on weekends, never taking vacation - all that "I ONLY SLEEP FOUR HOURS A NIGHT" obnoxiousness) but at stuff that would put his bosses (NBC, the affiliates) on his side. Letterman worked his ass off too, but he worked his ass off at his actual job, and often did things that actively antagonized his bosses. As a fellow Person #2, I feel like I know where Letterman may have been coming from (though I am probably both not as talented as him and I hope not as hostile to my employers). The consensus at the time was that Letterman was better at the job itself: funnier, a more practiced TV host, a "natural broadcaster" as many TV execs quoted in the book put it. But they gave the promotion to Leno anyway, and a big part of why is all that "Make things easier for your boss" stuff. It's not the only reason, but it definitely mattered, and may have been what made the difference.

If we're being honest, I've never had a job where I worked absolutely as hard as I possibly could have. I've worked hard, really hard sometimes, but I'd always rather be not working if there's a choice, and unlike Jay Leno, I do take vacations. Long ones. I don't check my work email while I'm on those vacations either. Say me and my colleague, both equally successful, are up for the Tonight Show hosting gig. I'm successful because I'm just good, and he's successful because he spends like ten hours a night working on his monologue and fine-tuning it based on poll results and demographic info from Nielsen, but the results are identical. (It's a hypothetical. Work with me.) There are people who think it's a 'duh' decision, and that I should get the job. There are also people who think it's a 'duh' decision and that my colleague should get the job. Though I still think Jay Leno is a creep who might be a sociopath and is definitely not that funny, it's true that there's something to be said for the people who work their guts out for you and don't take breaks to watch Lady Gaga videos on YouTube and aren't lying when they say in interviews that their 'flaw' is perfectionism and maybe aren't that talented in the strictest sense, but still get stuff done because they don't stop until it's done, and done well. I'm just never going to be one of them, which is why I'll always be on Team Letterman, except when he's doing it with his female staff because that's actually creepy too.

* Wow, only last month. Does that feel to anyone else like that was forever ago? I did move a couple days after Conan's final show, which may have something to do with the antediluvian feel of it fo rme.
** It did, funnily enough, make me a wee bit less sympathetic towards Conan O'Brien, just because he seems to have had a pretty charmed existence. I kinda didn't appreciate someone with that kind of fairy tale backstory telling me that he really hates it when people are cynical. I understand why he"s not cynical, but I didn't get plucked from virtual obscurity at 29 to host a TV show even though I had no on-camera experince under my belt just because my boss was Lorne Michaels and I seemed likeable.

Angler


The Cheney Vice Presidency
by Barton Gellman

Dick Cheney is kind of a genius and a total creep. Not least because his goon David Addington comes off worse in this book than Cheney does.

After chapters and chapters of over-reaching scheming creepy genius horrorshow, Gellman tries to soothe his readers by explaining how eventually Cheney got put back in his place, sort of, and gets all pollyanna-ish about things always reverting to the natural order, even for creepy geniuses. I AM NOT REASSURED, BARTON GELLMAN.

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