Though I’ve heard great things about Paul Theroux, Dark Star Safari was the first by him that I’ve read – well, listened to actually. Thanks to our current location in Chicago and the locations of our respective families, the holidays involve a lot of driving for Mrs. Millions and me – 36 hours worth this year if my math is correct. One of the best ways to pass the time is with audiobooks and even though Mrs. Millions got me XM Radio this year, Dark Star Safari was so engaging that we spent a lot of our trip listening to it. It’s a shame that the audio version appears to be unavailable (we got ours from the library) because it was very well done. Norman Deitz, as narrator, is very much in character as Theroux, and he gamely contorts his voice when relating the dialog of the many men and women of various nationalities that Theroux meets on his way from Cairo to Capetown. Though Africa is the centerpiece of this book, Theroux shares top billing. As he explains, this trip, very much a solo journey, was a return to the continent where he lived 40 years ago as a young Peace Corps volunteer and teacher. He soon finds that a lot of Africa has changed and not for the better. Much of the book is devoted to finding out why. We learn a lot about Africa’s history and geography and we meet dozens of fascinating people along the way from Nobel Laureates to prostitutes. But Theroux, writing in his 60s and having earned the right to hold forth on such things, dwells most upon his likes and dislikes. He does not like most of the aid workers in Africa and he explains, rather convincingly, why the aid system is broken. He does not like proselytizing missionaries, with whom he gleefully argues theology. He does not like Africa’s sprawling, destitute, dangerous cities. Theroux, however, likes the “bush,” the great trackless stretches of Africa where people still live simply, uncorrupted by foreign aid and oppressive governments. Of the people he meets, Theroux likes the straight-talkers, the honest people who care about Africa and aren’t trying to get something from him. Though Theroux spends a lot of time analyzing the current state of Africa in his own engaging, non-technical way, the enormity of his journey was what made the book so enjoyable for me. He travels by every method imaginable in a meandering path from Egypt to South Africa. Along the way he is shot at by bandits, harassed by border guards and harangued by Africa’s urban predators. Theroux acknowledges the similarities of his travels with those of many Westerners before him, but he does not slip into romanticism or despair. He loves Africa for its chaos.
In his other life as a filmmaker, Arthur Bradford made a fantastic documentary about the making of an episode of South Park called 6 Days to Air. The title references how quickly Trey Parker, Matt Stone, and crew are able to produce a half an hour of blistering animation, and in one particularly insightful moment, Parker offers this bit of writing advice:
I sort of always call it the rule of replacing “ands” with either “buts” or “therefores.” And so it’s always like: This happens, and then this happens, and then this happens. Whenever I can go back in the writing and change that to: This happens, therefore this happens, but this happens. Whenever you can replace your “ands” with “buts” and “therefores,” makes for better writing.
What he’s talking about is narrative economy, about figuring out the most efficient way to tell a story, but he’s also tapped into something deeper — namely, that the power of scenes is, in many ways, relational. Stories work best, in other words, when sequential action is causal or obstructive.
One can see why Bradford would make a documentary about these guys. The stories in his new collection Turtleface and Beyond are positively stuffed with “buts” and “therefores.” The stories even function almost like episodes, and, as Parker instructed, each story employs skillful economy. A young man named Georgie is our narrator, and this consistency greatly increases the impact of each story as the collection moves along: Georgie is more and more defined, so we don’t need to be reintroduced to him, leaving Bradford with the chance to move directly into his weird, funny adventures.
In the opener, “Turtleface,” Georgie watches his friend unwisely decide to run down a cliff face into a river. Amazingly the friend makes it into the water. Unfortunately, he smacks his face into a floating turtle. Georgie, tellingly, seems to care as much for the now-broken turtle as he does for his cavalier buddy, even bringing the little guy home until he’s mended. Later, in “Snakebite,” Georgie and a few friends stop to help a hitchhiker who’s been bitten by a cottonmouth. Georgie, of course, ends up being the one to suck the poison out (a doctor asks him later, “Why the hell did you do that?”). And still later, Georgie gets mixed up with a partner at a law firm who’s going through a mid-life crisis. Georgie, with nothing but the best intentions, becomes the lawyer’s middleman for drugs and prostitutes.
The point is: Georgie is a good guy who ends up in some compromising situations. But Georgie’s goodness is more than just a character trait –– it’s a narrative strategy. Through his hapless narrator, Bradford is able to push the stories into some absurd territory, because Georgie means well, and doesn’t always see where his choices will take him. In other words, Georgie grounds the stories for the reader, weighting them so they don’t float off into pure silliness.
Sometimes, Georgie should have seen the shit coming. When he gets “fired from my job for a stupid indiscretion,” (which, we readers assume, refers to the time he slept with a patient at a mental institution where he was an orderly, but could be referencing any number of other fuck-ups) he wants to “leave town.” The person with whom he finds a ride is a man named Paul O’Malley. Here is the ominous (but also very funny) preview of their trip together:
Paul was passing through town on his way to the West Coast and had announced that he would be gone in the morning. I saw him two weeks later though, right after I’d been fired from that job. He was wandering downtown, looking a little dazed and strung out.
“I haven’t slept in three days,” he told me.
“I thought you were going out west,” I said.
“But you said you were leaving two weeks ago.”
“I got hung up. Wait, two weeks? It hasn’t been that long.”
“Yes, it has.”
“Oh.” Paul scratched his head.
Most of us would probably take Paul’s sudden loss of two weeks as a sign to avoid spending hours alone and on the road with this dude, but Georgie, desperate and good-hearted, jumps right in. (Spoiler: the trip doesn’t go well).
Yet this is another part of Georgie’s charm: he’s willing to do stupid, irresponsible things — dangerous, illegal things — but that doesn’t take away from the fact that he’s a decent person. Take, for instance, the funny and poignant story “The LSD and the Baby.” Yes, Georgie agrees to go out into the woods with a guy named Richard to “sample a batch of LSD he recently completed.” And, yes, he doesn’t object when he learns that a woman named Sabrina and her baby are tagging along. But when both Richard and Sabrina disappear into the woods (presumably to have acid-enhanced sex), good ole Georgie takes the baby’s life into his own hands, first to a hospital (the baby eats some possibly poisonous berries) and then to his job, and all while tripping balls. Georgie only gets a quiet yet dignified catharsis at the end of the story, but it’s a lovely moment.
I was reminded of Tom Perrotta’s Bad Haircut and Junot Díaz’s Yunior stories in Drown and This Is How You Lose Her. And then, of course, going back to Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty in On the Road and even further back to Ernest Hemingway’s Nick Adams and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Sad Young Men (and Keith Gessen’s Sad Young Literary Men). Essentially, these are all –– from Bradford to Hemingway, the lot of them –– often just stories about young men doing stupid shit, or young men not doing enough good shit, or young men doing good shit in the wrong way. In many cases, we assume the narrator is a stand-in for the author (or, as in Gessen’s case, he takes all the pretext of guesswork out of it by naming his narrator Keith), and we often interpret each piece as some form of self-reflection. They read easy, almost like reportage, and their authenticity is built into the voice, the rhythm and flow of the prose. Sometimes, though, the shallowness isn’t a disguise for anything more meaningful than the story itself, which places great weight on the likeability, and not to mention the humanity, of the protagonist. Sal Paradise, I can live without. And to me Dean Moriarity seems like a real asshole. Yunior, though, I adore. And Georgie, well, Georgie’s a good dude in my book. As I read, I wanted to follow along with him, so even when a story didn’t exactly work as a whole, I didn’t mind — Georgie had my back.
It’s been 14 years since Bradford’s last story collection Dogwalker. In the meantime, he hasn’t been what anyone would call prolific, but he’s been living quite a life. He worked in New York for a while, he recently wrote, and he “directed a summer camp, made several films, had two children, and currently works at a juvenile detention center in Portland, Ore.” And it’s true: the stories in Turtleface and Beyond do read like the result of someone with a multitude of absurd experiences, real, visceral familiarity with these people, this world depicted within its pages. Good for him.
Anthony Bourdain is raw, silly, funny, delicate and unedited. And so is his latest book The Nasty Bits, a collection of three-to-five-page shorts – with a few longer exceptions. The collection does not come close to the revealing, unique and intriguing Kitchen Confidential (Emre’s review). It is still a good read that furthers the reader’s appetite for the unknown and reveals the idiosyncrasies of a celebrity chef, however.The Nasty Bits is a good, short escape if you are trapped in a fast-paced environment. Last fall I lacked time to enjoy a long novel that would require a certain level of attention. Bourdain’s writing proved to be loyal friend that left my taste buds wondering and my mind revisiting restaurants in New York. The Nasty Bits also provided for some hearty laughter.Bourdain’s style does not waver much. He sticks to a familiar, day-to-day usage of language, which makes the stories engaging monologues. The Nasty Bits provides some useful insight, as did Kitchen Confidential, into the restaurant industry. One practice I can claim prior to reading the collection is being nice to your waiter/waitress.The stories are more about Bourdain’s new found leisure activities and privileges as a celebrity chef. While it may not be as interesting as the misadventures of a drug addict and alcoholic in the New York restaurant world, Bourdain’s honest admission to reaping the benefits of his status and bashing of the new industry that enables him to take a break from breaking his back at Les Halles in New York are still interesting.The author’s misadventures in The Nasty Bits take the reader to some of the world’s best restaurants (Thomas Keller’s Bouchon, Ferran Adria’s El Bulli and many more), a love boat trip much resisted by Mrs. Bourdain (who I assume to be Buddha-like when it comes to putting up with Bourdain’s antics) and on the road with his TV show “No Reservations” (Vietnam, Las Vegas, Italy, etc.).Bourdain also fires salvos at U.S. food industry (for limiting people to McDonald’s and making them obese), Woody Harrelson (for maintaining a diet of “raw fruits and vegetables”) and dress codes (advocating a no-shoes policy). There is also his familiar theory for providing green cards to everyone south of the border to save the restaurant industry (I concur). Lastly, the author provides book suggestions to cooks, an unasked for commencement address to culinary school grads, and opinions on how chefs handle celebrity.The Nasty Bits is Bourdain, through and through. It is honest, entertaining and quick. The collection might not be as fascinating as Kitchen Confidential, but it is still worth your consideration – especially on your bedside table, coffee table or in your bathroom (that is, if you do not have qualms about reading about food while in the toilet).
I’m not ashamed to admit it. I was young once. So were you.Of course, there are lots of things I’m ashamed to admit about my youth. But I’m not ashamed to say that I was young at one time, and that during that one time I may have done things that were entirely “not cool” and that by doing those things, I managed to ostracize myself from all of the other people who called themselves my classmates.Jason Taylor isn’t that different. From me. From you. We all went through it – whether it was on the cool, invited-to-every-party side or the ridiculously dorky, playing-board-games-with-your-parents side. What makes him different is his ability to transcend everything, to be brilliant and thoughtful and clever while being torn apart by the wolves that make up the popular group.In his head, that is. Jason’s not actually bringing any of these traits into the open. In David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green – our book of the month, if you haven’t caught on – Jason Taylor is a virtuoso; a child who has mastered the art of words at a young age but hasn’t quite mastered the art of fitting in. He’s a poet, which is either wonderful or terrifying, depending on your views. To Jason, it was terrifying.Imagine, if you are male, telling your classmates that you were a ballerina. Or that you wore dresses. That’s the same stigma Jason lived with. Oh, that and the fact that he couldn’t speak without stammering (which is different from stuttering), thus making all of his word-ly talents null and void when it came to saying them out loud.Black Swan Green is set as a series of short stories, joined together in chronological order but not directly tied into each other from story to story. It’s also a classic coming of age story, although instead of “learning how to survive life,” Jason finds himself “learning how to survive middle school.” This, as we all know, is more dangerous than anything life has afterward.Remember the feeling you had when a group of older kids came wandering down the path? That feeling of dread as you hoped they wouldn’t notice you? As you hoped they would just walk on by? That’s Jason’s life. It’s a little chapter out of each of our lives. And it’s nearly frightening how Mitchell pens a story so incredibly close to our awkward adolescent lives.Mitchell has a way with drawing the life out of a common experience – that naughty girl that you kind of liked; the feeling of being (finally) included into the cool kids’ group, even if only for a moment; the overbearing chore of keeping your parents off of the scent that you were being bullied, because after all, there’s nothing worse than your parents getting involved in a school terror ring. It’s all spelled out, exactly the way it happened. It’s stark, it’s hopeless, but eventually, it’s empowering and triumphant. Jason doesn’t just get picked on; he fights back and wins a few battles of his own.If you were one of the kids that slid through school without a care, knowing that when it came down to it you were bred to be successful and rich and fantastically popular, then you should read this book. Just to see the Hell you put the rest of us through. And if you were in Hell during those times, then maybe it would be a good idea to read Black Swan Green as well – to soak in the bad moments and realize, “Hey, I turned out all right. I persevered, and now (hopefully) I am living a richer and more wildly-varied life than any of those popular Neanderthals are.”After all, we shouldn’t forget what made us, right?Corey Vilhauer – Black Marks on Wood PulpCVBoMC Jan, Feb, Mar, Apr, May, June, July, Aug, Sept
This guest contribution comes from Kevin Hartnett. Hartnett lives in Philadelphia with his fiance. After graduating from college in 2003, he joined Teach For America and taught sixth grade in the Bronx for two years. He enjoys politics and travel and writing about both.Snow, Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk’s 2004 novel, opens as Ka, a stranger come to town, steps off a bus into the first flurries of a gathering snowstorm. He has arrived in Kars, a remote border city in eastern Turkey and a place, like much of his native country, that is foreign to him. For the last eight years Ka has lived as an exiled poet in Hamburg, shifting anonymously between the public library and the cheap porn shops near his apartment. In Kars, his bourgeois Istanbul accent and department store coat mark him as an outsider.The city appears muffled at first, its citizens dispirited by poverty and forced inside by the cold. Kars is a place of former glory, once a haunt of the Ottomans and the Russian tsars, now crumbling and forgotten as the rest of Turkey looks west to Europe. Ka, however, feels revitalized in Kars.He has come ostensibly as a journalist, to report on an epidemic of suicides among the “headscarf girls,” a group of young women who killed themselves after a law prohibited women from participating in public life with their heads covered. It is soon evident, though, that Ka has little interest in the story, or politics generally. Even his exile was prompted simply by a case of mistaken identity, an apt fate for a man whose own apparent weightlessness would have caused him to suffer the misfortune with little objection.Ka has not had sex in four years or written a poem in nearly that long and he feels the promise of a dual rebirth in Kars. His real reason for making the trip is Ipek, an acquaintance from high school whom he remembers only for her beauty. Ka takes a room at the Snow Palace Hotel where she lives, and wastes little time pressing his intentions. Ipek appears amenable, yet cautions that she could never make love while her father is under the same roof, and her father almost never leaves the hotel. Thus left to bide his time, Ka wanders the streets of Kars, finding creative inspiration in the rapidly falling snow, and learning, by chance encounter, about the political rifts and personal aspirations which rend Kars.He is approached by boys from the local religious high school, who interrogate Ka about his belief in God. One of the boys, Mesut, asks him, “do you or don’t you believe that God Almighty created the universe and everything in it, even the snow that is falling from the sky?” Ka replies only that, “The snow reminds me of God.” It is the type of elision by which Snow frequently works. Characters, their views and their motivations are elusive and unknown, often even to themselves.The boys’ interest in Ka turns out to be more than mere curiosity or defiance. Fazil, a particularly earnest boy, was in love with Teslime, a headscarf girl who committed suicide. He says to Ka, “We could not believe that a Muslim girl ready to sacrifice everything for her faith could be capable of suicide” (which is forbidden by the Koran). Fazil fears that Teslime’s suicide reveals her to have been an atheist, and even worse, he has begun to worry that it marks him by association. He seeks Ka’s reassurance. “‘Are you an atheist” asked Fazil with imploring eyes. ‘If you are an atheist, do you want to kill yourself?'”Pamuk began writing Snow before 9/11 and the book presages the lines of conflict which have erupted since. The religious boys are poor, provincial, and wary of “The West,” for mocking their faith. Their counterpoint is Sunay Zaim, an effete, secular actor, whose traveling theater troupe comes to Kars to perform an intentionally provocative version of the Turkish play “My Country or My Headscarf.” Zaim uses the performance to launch a coup when, mid-scene, prop guns turn out to have been loaded with real bullets.Ka’s confused beliefs about God and his mixed identity, as a Turk, an exile, and an outsider in Kars (an accurate description of Pamuk as well), inspire leaders on both sides of the coup to promote their cause to him. Ka is secreted to a meeting with Blue, a charismatic Islamist leader and possible terrorist, who is repulsed by Ka’s mealy convictions, but nevertheless wants his help getting a statement out to Western newspapers. Zaim likewise beckons Ka, hoping that he could secure the participation of Ipek’s sister Kadife, an outspoken headscarf girl, in the dramatic final act of the coup.For his part, Ka would rather simply pursue the affections of Ipek and the reinvigorated direction of his muse. He admits to feeling “so ashamed of his wish for happiness” yet after years of austere loneliness abroad that is all he wants. Such pretensions to happiness are not well accommodated in Kars, however. The falling snow evokes God to Ka and inspires an eponymous poem, but it also has a more practical role in the story. It abets the coup by blocking the roads into the city.Snow is haunted by the specter of religious suicide and rife with the political strife that defines our time. Pamuk handles both thoughtfully and subtly, but his final concern is happiness, and whether such a thing is possible in a world where ideological pressure and cultural change confuse an individual looking for his own path towards belief. If Ka is an emblematic figure, than our prospects seem dim, though Pamuk does offer the possibility of redemption in the story itself, well told and beautifully written as it is.