Friday, April 8, 2016

The Bonfire of the Vanities (Tom Wolfe)

Sherman McCoy is a wealthy Wall Street trader at his peak, with an opulent home, a beautiful wife, an adorable daughter, and a hell-hot mistress. Although Sherman basks in his success, he’s not just an egoistic snob. He’s frustrated by his wife’s limitless extravagances. He’s disdainful of the superficiality he’s surrounded with. He works hard, he respects his superiors, and he cherishes his little girl. But when he and his mistress inadvertently drive his Mercedes off their planned course and into the Bronx, Sherman’s perfectly aligned world is tipped off its axis by a run-in with two young black men, setting off a slow spin that gains frightening momentum page by page. Sherman is flung into a universe that he was previously untouched by  protesters, press hounds, detectives, thugs, corrupt clergy, hardened attorneys, and a walloping media frenzy.

Tom Hanks as Sherman McCoy
(photo from
I don’t remember how The Bonfire of the Vanities found its way onto my bookshelf, but based on the author, I knew I had to read it. (And as usual, no, I haven’t seen the movie.) It’s a pop-culture hit from the 1980s, so it feels a little dated, but if you were awake during that time, you’ll love how accurately Wolfe captures the zeitgeist. He titillates your schadenfreude as Wall Street Whitey topples from his pinnacle, but he nurtures your empathy as Sherman is humanized by his struggles. You’ll likely find yourself rooting for Sherman, especially given the distastefulness of most of his foes, whose ego-driven motives are arguably more shameful than his own.

The novel is rife with casual racism and sexism. To me, it seems exaggerated for the era, but I was, admittedly, sheltered, so maybe the attitudes aren’t inaccurate. If you offend easily, you’ll be challenged. Approach it as an education.

Tom Wolfe at the White House Salute to American Authors,
March 2004 (photo credit Susan Sterner)
I’ve been in love with Wolfe since I read The Right Stuff over a decade ago. The Bonfire of the Vanities also delivers in his characteristic sharp, masculine, high-energy style. The setting is old-pop, but the writing prevails. It’s true literature, the kind of stuff that makes Americans proud of our great authors, and Tom Wolfe is one of them.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

The Liar's Club: A Memoir (Mary Karr)

If your family is normal, or even quasi-normal, then The Liar’s Club will showcase a whole new cultural experience for you. Mary Karr’s memoir describes her 1960s childhood with her sister Lecia in hilarious, horrific detail. For our reading entertainment, the profoundly dysfunctional Karr family takes the proverbial stage in "Leechfield," Texas (a pseudonym for the Port Arthur area). Leechfield is a lower-middle class town where the land and the air, and a lot of the people, smell like oil.

Per Mary’s telling, her mother (whom she simply calls Mother) is a tortured artist, full of inner grandeur, and stifled by the bounds of poverty. She’s philosophical, passionate, and brilliant in her own ways, but she’s immobilized by mental illness and alcoholism. Her artistic flamboyance is so out of place in Leechfield, no one knows what to make of her, and the community writes her off as lunatic. But their assessment doesn’t seem unfair. Mother’s wildly destructive behaviors are the primary thrill factor of the book. Only the glowering, disapproving grandmother can subdue her, to the astonishment and disappointment of young Mary.

Mary’s father (Daddy) is the saner parent. He’s an alcoholic too, but since he’s unplagued by mental illness, he isn't ostracized. He holds a job in the oil refinery, feeds his family, and dotes on his little girls. Daddy is famous in Leechfield for his masterful telling of tall tales among friends (inspiring the title The Liars’ Club).

Although Mother and Daddy do love Mary and Lecia, Mother’s illness overshadows every aspect of their lives with insanity. Mary and Lecia have few boundaries. While Lecia assumes the responsibility that her mother shirks, Mary grows sassy and wild.

Motiva Oil Refinery, Port Arthur, Texas
(photo from
When Mother comes into some money, they all move from oil-permeated Leechfield to an idyllic ranch in Colorado, where the girls roam the wild countryside on horseback in mountain-fresh air under wide open skies. But as it has been said, no matter where you go, there you are. Addiction and illness follow them. Mother and Daddy divorce soon thereafter, and the children are abandoned to themselves and tossed around with fantastical carelessness.

To conclude the memoir, Mary skips to her young adulthood. Mother’s new money has been squandered, Mother and Daddy have reconciled, they’ve returned to Leechfield, Daddy is bedridden, and a great family secret is disclosed. Suddenly, the insanity makes sense. But don’t read ahead. You need the blindness to appreciate Mary’s bewildering, focusless upbringing.

Throughout the book, Mary hints that she and Lecia have grown into contributing, productive humans, but as she describes her childhood, you may wonder how that outcome is possible. Maybe this is what saves the girls: Despite all the chaos, a thread of love is evident. The girls are not rejected by either parent, nor by each other. They learn attachment.

Mary Karr
Karr’s narrative is a mashup of childish perspective and grown-up introspection. Her lexicon is deliberate and selective. She crafts each sentence like a poet (which she also is). In her writing, you’ll see glimpses of the good genes she’s inherited. She’s an artist, like her mother, and a taleweaver, like her father. Enjoy The Liar’s Club like wine: Some of it is unsavory. Some of it is exquisite. All of it will alter your outlook.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Eden (Yael Hedaya)

Eden is one of several novels that my cousin Michal gave me to introduce me to Israeli literature, and it is a grand introduction, a shadowy exposé of lifestyles in a gentrified moshav. The moshav, Eden, is unlike the humble, workaday neighborhood described in Mier Shalev’s My Russian Grandmother and Her American Vacuum Cleaner. Instead, it’s a genteel outlying haven of older remodeled homes with price tags now beyond the reach of Joe Schmoe and his ilk. It’s the type of place you drive past and think, “Wouldn’t that be nice?” And what Hedaya posits here is that maybe Eden isn’t so nice.

Hedaya has structured the book so that each chapter is narrated by alternating characters, all residents of Eden, in their own stream-of-consciousness. Some of the characters are related or acquainted, others are not, and some will cross paths as the story proceeds. Not much real time elapses in its 486 pages, but as the characters spend considerable energy dwelling on past events, a strong sense of personal and relational history is constructed. 

The primary characters hail from two households. Daphna and Eli are a childless couple trying desperately to conceive. Alona and Mark are separated but friendly spouses with a troubled teenage daughter, Roni. When Roni embarks on an affair with Eli, their secret threatens to dismantle any remnant of happiness their families may be currently clinging to.

A home in a modern moshav
Eden’s narrative is cerebral. Some characters are oppressively, even self-destructively, analytical. Like a soap opera, the story grows dark and explicit and becomes highly entangled. Eden isn’t all sex and sentiment though. It also addresses the modern political tensions from both liberal and conservative perspectives. But the political ideals prove as illusory as the idyllic moshav lifestyle.

The book I read is a translation from Hebrew, so I can’t authoritatively discuss Hedaya’s narrative style. The English-language version, translated by Jessica Cohen, maintains the Israeli feel that I’m starting to recognize ‒ declarative, opinionated, direct. The text is rich in literal and figurative content. The characterization is distinct, with a clear shift in voice from narrator to narrator. You’ll get a strong grasp of each person, and you’ll have strong opinions about them too. Hedaya also incorporates a book-within-a-book construction which, upon some analysis, can turn up discussion-worthy correlations with the primary plot.

Yael Hedaya
The moshav Eden appears lovely, but sordid secrets lurk there. The book Eden is also full of beauty and darkness. The ending is grim but hopeful, as I like to think of the spirit of Israel ‒ resilient despite the country’s turmoil. Eden is a tumultuous but insightful story, and I’m glad to be among its community of readers.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

American Gods (Neil Gaiman)

Neil Gaiman’s epic American Gods would be a great subject for a master’s-level analytical essay. But since my humble blog promises to keep reviews short and informal, this post will barely address the intricacies of the masterpiece. Still, I hope the cursory glance I provide here will tempt you enough to savor the novel for yourself.

But before you do, you should know that it starts kind of befuddlingly and stays that way for a while. Let me clarify. Gaiman doesn’t write the ungraspable stream-of-consciousness gobbledeegook that we’re force-fed in Modern Lit courses. You’ll follow his every word and sentiment. What I mean is this: The story can feel plotless. It meanders down seemingly random threads to dangling ends. But KEEP READING! All of those threads are actually hot wires that will connect and detonate in a fantastical conclusive bang.

The story centers on Shadow, a lovable convict who practices coin tricks and misses his wife. Despite Shadow’s resolve to avoid trouble after his release, he’s inexplicably suckered into working for Mr. Wednesday, a prolific rule breaker, who also turns out to be Odin, the “All-Father” of Norse mythology. Shadow and Wednesday travel the country to recruit other old, forgotten gods for a great battle against the insipid contemporary deities.

Odin the Wanderer (1869)
by Georg von Rosen
Along the way, you’ll meet a motley cast of historical and present-day people, ancient supernatural beings, and also the modern gods who try to compel Shadow away from Wednesday’s service. In his loyalty to Wednesday, Shadow gets caught in some brutal physical encounters and several supernatural events.

For at least half of the novel, it’s unclear why Wednesday has chosen Shadow and why the contemporary gods are bent on his elimination. But chapter by chapter, the picture sharpens, and the brilliance of the story will emerge. Sex and love, intrigue and betrayal, con jobs and killings, all culminate in a great oblation, and finally, absolution.

I’m not a student of mythology, so I’m certain (and disappointed) that I missed a lot of beautiful nuances and allusions. But with my background in Christian studies, I can confirm that Gaiman incorporates several biblical references  shadows, if you will. Don’t get hung up on them. The author knows his stuff, but American Gods is not an allegory.

The edition I read is the “Author’s Preferred Text.” I don’t know how it differs from other editions, but in the appendix, Gaiman includes a passage that he omitted from the body of the novel. It’s where Shadow meets Jesus. I liked it. I think it would have been good in context. But based on the commentary, I understand why he kept it out, and why he couldn’t quite entirely keep it out.

Neil Gaiman
The only other Gaiman book I’ve read (so far) is the Graveyard Book, an excellent juvenile fiction. Based on these two reads, I can tell you that Gaiman has a leaning toward the macabre. His work is far from horror though. It’s just a step into a fantasy world that can be dark, maybe a little dangerous, but mostly an alluring adventure. His objective is not to frighten, but to present a new angle on things you might have otherwise considered scary. He writes for the masses, but this is no pulp thriller. He tells a great redemption story, but it’s not a religious text either. American Gods is lavish and complex and, honestly, deserves a second reading for full appreciation. I hope to have that second reading before long, but even more, I hope you pick up the book and get at least one great ride with it.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Detroit City Is the Place To Be: The Afterlife of an American Metropolis (Mark Binelli)

Detroit City Is the Place To Be wasn’t what I hoped. Going in, I wanted to read about Detroit’s greatness and, maybe, get an honest nod to its struggles. The reality was vice versa. Mark Binelli writes at length about Detroit’s woes and only briefly acknowledges some points of optimism. But I wasn’t disappointed. The book is a thorough, insightful, and engaging history and analysis of the city’s challenges from its settlement by French fur traders in the late 1600’s to publication in 2013.

Like me, Binelli was raised in the Detroit suburbs (in my case, Warren, and in his case, Saint Clair Shores). He left Michigan for his career, and then returned to live in the city proper, specifically the Eastern Market area in Southeast Detroit, to research and write this book. His location at the writing gives him sentimental and practical clout. Binelli clearly loves the city, as he speaks fondly of his neighborhood and neighbors and others who turn up in the pages, but he describes the entity of Detroit like a disappointed father telling a friend about a wayward child.

Detroit as viewed from Windsor, Ontario
The book is organized somewhat chronologically, but mainly categorically. Each chapter addresses a particular topic: history, arson, crime, politics, schools, blight, etc. Binelli reports facts, but he editorializes too. He takes investigative field trips and conducts interviews with experts on each issue. The format works. You’ll get a surprisingly in-depth education on the individual subjects, and when viewed in whole, the big picture makes sense … or nonsense, as it can feel. You’ll begin to realize the enormous scope of Detroit’s problems and the formidable task of its economic revival. But Binelli, like anyone with Detroit in their blood, also recognizes and feels the pervasive undercurrent of hope.

Binelli’s writing is fairly highbrow journalism. His wit is sharp and sometimes bleakly poetic. But while he uses some big words and long, complex sentences, he’s not ostentatious. He writes to the average bright reader. (If you’re reading this book, I consider you bright.) You should approach the book expecting an education but not an intellectual strain.

Mark Binelli (from
I routinely tell non-Detroiters that Detroit is a fabulous city that gets a lot of bad press, that “You have to know where to go and where to avoid, but aren’t most cities like that?” I tell them about the Riverwalk and the orchestra and Belle Isle and the ethnic food and the rich arts culture. Detroit City is the Place To Be is, maybe unfortunately, more bad press. But to address our weaknesses, we must be aware of them. I think Binelli means well, and maybe he’ll help goad the town to faster, fuller healing.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

The Night of the Hunter (Davis Grubb)

Inspired by the true story of Depression-era serial killer Harry Powers, The Night of the Hunter, first published in 1953, is an old-timey thriller featuring the dynamic, psychopathic, mercenary preacher, whose name is changed to Harry Powell for the novel. Powell, commonly known as Preacher, seeks out and marries a widow, Willa, whose late husband hid a large stash of money somewhere on their property. Willa doesn’t know where the money is, but her two young children, John and Pearl, do. Powell sets off on a psychological-turned-physical hunt to discover the children’s secret.  

Grubb uses his novel to criticize the questionless credence some people give to anyone who declares himself a “man of God” and who publicly (emphasis on publicly) behaves according to those expectations. The book also takes a delightful feminist tack in the character of Rachel, the primary heroine, who demonstrates a superior level of resourcefulness, intelligence, love, and strength, independent of any man, standing in commendable contrast with the foolish, meddlesome, and sheepish townswomen.

Mugshot of serial killer Harry Powers, 1920
Grubb’s narrative is eloquent and smart, and his crafting of the townsfolks' dialect enhances his portrayal of rural Americana, which isn’t especially complimentary. While he employs stereotypes of small-town ignorance, the characters are never corny, and Grubb differentiates between simplicity and stupidity. His smart characters aren’t fancy, but they’re strong and sharp.

Davis Grubb
(Photo from
The story’s plot is compelling. The author creates suspense and evokes strong and appropriate emotions about each character, good and bad. The stereotypes are recognizable, but they don’t create a predictability that detracts from the story. Instead, the roles support and strengthen the telling of this classic American thriller. Read it and enjoy the retro ride. 

Sunday, March 29, 2015

The Masked Rider: Cycling in West Africa (Neil Peart)

Neil Peart is famously the drummer for the Canadian rock band Rush, but his book The Masked Rider: Cycling in West Africa is almost entirely not about his career. Although his musicianship gets a couple of side mentions, his career is as relevant to this book as my cycling hobby is to my career as a technical writer, i.e., pretty much not at all. The book is essentially a polished journal of Peart’s 1988 cycling tour through the West African country of Cameroon. Neil is a great writer and a substantial thinker, and while his name certainly helped sell several copies, the book is excellent enough on its own. I didn’t know him, and I loved it.

The Masked Rider’s timeline is linear. It starts when the tour starts, and it ends when the tour ends. Peart tells stories of towns, people, sites, lodgings, food, wildlife, and so on. He doesn’t paint an idyllic picture, nor is it poverty porn. He recounts his travels matter-of-factly, with opinions, many of which are lovely, and many not. The portrayals seem fair. Per the author’s telling, the Cameroonian people are often friendly and welcoming, quick to smile and help when they can. On the other hand, some locals try to swindle Peart and his travel mates (and tourists in general). Peart also notes his frustration with the accommodations. Even the “good” hotels are dives by American standards  bugs, grime, polluted water, broken air conditioning, and “frozen” plumbing.

Map of Cameroon. 
The tour began in Duala and ended in N'djamena.
Throughout the book, an unexpected treat is Peart’s philosophical bent. He’s not the stereotypical dopehead rock star. This guy is obviously whip-smart and well-read. He opines insightfully on all aspects of the adventure and includes informed discussions on history and politics.

Peart sometimes comes off as a bit of a hot head. He doesn’t make great friends with any of the other cyclists, and he quickly develops a special disdain for one of them in particular. In his direct interactions with his travel mates, he seldom says or does anything outright abrasive. He’s sophisticated enough to exercise restraint in the moment. But his irritation simmers in the writing. 

Since I am the even-tempered, forgiving type, I’ll defend Peart by saying that this journey, with its excessive heat, roadblocks, irrational questioning, government run-around, horrible road and trail conditions, lack of sleep, foodborne illness, etc., would exhaust pretty much anyone’s patience.

Peart performing at the Air Canada Centre, Toronto, Ontario,
on October 16, 2012.
"Neil Peart3" by Shipguy - Own work.
Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -
Maybe West Africa’s sociopolitical environment and infrastructure have improved since 1988. I haven’t done the research. But this book convinced me that I don’t want to take a similar tour, outside of a book, at least. It’s a fascinating trip via the pages of The Masked Rider, where you can experience just enough of Cameroon from your first-world cozy chair, without bug bites, intestinal distress, or threat of imprisonment. Maybe Peart will inspire you to fly your bike to Africa, but I’ll stick with the Tennessee hills for my real-life adventure rides.