Book Review: Corporate America

These are reviews/thoughts/musings of books read recently. All books rated on a scale of 1-5. Today’s review is on Jack Dougherty’s 2013 satire ‘Corporate America’.

Corporate America is a book that labels itself a ‘corporate satire’, but in reality is a thinly veiled blowjob to corporate life packed full of disdain for creatives. Far from making fun of ‘everybody’, as author Jack Dougherty claims, his book throws its most mean-spirited, pointed jabs at activists, literary types and journalists and spends a wince-inducing amount of time romanticizing the beauty of the big corporation.

Full disclosure: I work at a large corporation, for clients that are some of the largest brands/consumer corporations in the world. I’m not the butt of Mr. Dougherty’s barbs, I’m not against big corporations, and I get as annoyed at overzealous activist groups as the next guy.  This book still made me feel like I needed to take a shower.

Our hero, Francis Scanlon, is a 20-something aspiring novelist and intellectual that routinely drops quotes from literary figures and name drops everybody from Voltaire to Paul Auster. However, after being banished from intellectual circles for being smarter and edgier than everybody around him, Francis stumbles into a job at the fictional Fortune 500 Prock Chocolate Corporation, where he grudgingly begins using his skills to further the company’s agenda.

He slowly realizes that Big Chocolate is actually not an evil corporation at all but rather a good hearted company, mercilessly and undeservedly being attacked by greedy interest groups and snotty investigative journalists. In the meantime, Francis continues to advance his career, dress better (complete with strange, unironic American Psycho-like details on the designer clothes he begins to wear), idolizes the company CEO as a hero of business and transforms into a smooth-talking ladies man, able to bang pretty much anybody he wants.

This last part is curious, especially as 30 pages establishes Francis as nervous around women as he literally torpedoes his literary career and Stanford scholarship  by offending a female poet he was attracted to by sticking his foot in his mouth when trying to hit on her. There’s a weird scene midbook where Francis goes to yoga with his attractive female boss and randomly drops that he was starting to develop a six pack. It’s like 300 pages of the author’s personal fantasy. Also, the message here is clear: want to dress nicer, make more money, be more suave and fuck the world’s most desired women? Work for corporate America!

Not too concentrate too much on plot here, as this book is meant to be light, mindless fare, but the third act of the book falls apart spectacularly. Francis’ boss turns into an enemy for no discernible reason, there is a climactic courtroom scene seemingly without a point and resolution, a bombing from a Muslim extremist group (?) and 50 pages of mind-numbingly stupid plotting that honestly feels that Dougherty made things up as he want along and was never edited or reviewed by anybody. Which is fine if you’re writing a dumb blog that nobody reads (ahem…) but this is a published, real novel. Come on, man.

Imbecilic plotting aside, the main reason this book is shit is because the worldview expressed in it is gross. I want to call out the below passage from early in the novel, when Francis goes to Poland to deal with a PR disaster after one of the company’s chocolate factories explodes and injures/kills multiple people (which turns out out to be the fault of a rogue individual and was in no way the company’s fault, of course). I think it’s an attempt at comedy, but serves as one of the most vile, racist things I’ve ever read in a novel:

The teenage waitress—barely legal, clad in a skintight pair of tie-dyed navy, lime and white lycra pants—was leaning against the bar, tapping ash into the ashtray and checking me out. She laughed as she watched me tear into the Mr. Snaki chips. My God, the architecture of these Slavic women, I thought. Those cheekbones; those legs up to here. At fourteen they looked thirty and you’d go to jail for interfering with them. At thirty they looked sixty and you fled from them. To find one in that exquisite in-between phase—it was a short window, ten years, max, before the smoking, diet, domestic violence, alcohol abuse, abortions, and pollutions caught up with them—ah, that was to know an experience no cheerleader-bonking jock from Kentfield would ever experience. I smiled at her. She bit her lower lip. (44)

I’m far from being one of those guys to get offended at anything that can be deemed provactive, but that was honestly one of the grossest things I’ve seen someone write in a very long time. Coming from a Slavic background, I would like to respectfully invite Mr. Dougherty to take his garbage novel and shove it right up his ass, right there next to all the shit that he seems to be so full of.

Rating: *

Book Review: Rebecca

These are reviews/thoughts/musings of books read recently. All books rated on a scale of 1-5. Today’s review is on Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 freaking masterpiece ‘Rebecca’.  

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.

I’ve written before about my experience with theater company Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More, an insane take on Macbeth’ where you don a mask and spend three hours wandering the dark halls of an abandoned ‘hotel’ in NYC’s Chelsea neighborhood as crazy things happen around you. One day I’ll write a full article about my experiences there (I’ve been, embarrassingly, three times), but one of the charms of the show is that at any point, one of the actors is liable to take you by the hand and lead you to a one-on-one, insane experience for you and you alone.

The first two times I saw the show, I didn’t have this happen to me. But the most recent time I went, I got grabbed by a young nurse character, who took me to the hidden sixth floor and proceeded to blow my mind. I won’t spoil it here, but I will say there was a lot of whispering in my ear about Manderley, moonlight playing odd tricks upon the fancy and how we can never go back to Manderley again.

This experience had a profound effect on me–I knew the bar that serves as the starting point to the show was called The Manderley (and it’s one of the coolest bars in NYC–if you haven’t yet, GO), but I didn’t know that the show was built around a Gothic novel written in the 30s just as much as it is built on ‘Macbeth’. I immediately became fascinated by this and had to take the time to read the book in question and learn more about what I had just seen.

Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, the book in question, is dark, creepy, engaging and awesome. Besides the fact that the main character was a girl, I was surprised to find that it was considered by some a ‘chick book’–this allegation is sexist, unfair and untrue. The book is seriously creepy, a mysterious and hard-hitting thriller that whispers sweet nothings to you from the shadows as you find yourself lost in Manderley.

Rebecca, follows an unnamed narrator who just underwent a shotgun wedding to a brooding and mysterious man named Max de Winter and followed him to his British estate of Manderley, complete with servants, secrets and mystique. The estate itself serves as one of the central characters of the book, and is perhaps the reason why it has endured to the point where 80 years later it has its own Wikipedia page and it’s own lore.

Our narrator is de Winter’s second wife, as his first wife–Rebecca–has passed away less than a year ago under mysterious circumstances. The feeling of dread and foreboding du Maurier crafts throughout the novel never leaves you, as you always feel like something is hiding in the shadows of Manderley.

The incredible skill of du Maurier to make the deceased Rebecca a central character in the book without one single line of dialogue–I repeat, she is dead throughout the entire book–is a device that I haven’t really seen done in any other books, at least not this effectively. It is a stunning piece of craftsmanship and writing.

This is not a love story, or a romance novel. There is very little actual romance in the book–the fact that this book was marketed as such is an abject tragedy. This is a dark story, one of unhappiness, anger and deep-rooted pain. This is a story that’s going to stick in your mind, in your subconscious. I’m a jaded reader, and sometimes hard to please. This book had a profound effect on me.

When the actress at Sleep No More, who I now understand to be the unnamed narrator of Rebecca, whispered in my ear that “we can never go back to Manderley again”, she was right. After taking one journey through Manderley, it can never be the same.

Rating: *****

Book Review: The Goldfinch

These are reviews/thoughts/musings of books read recently. All books rated on a scale of 1-5. Today’s review is on Donna Tartt’s 2013 Pulitzer-winning smash hit ‘The Goldfinch’.

Nobody should read books to be able to participate in cultural conversations. Your time is limited and your literary choices should involve the authors and stories that grab and interest you. Reading a book is a highly intimate, personal thing, where your time is spent accompanying your mind to another place and world altogether. Anything else is bullshit.

That said, even if you don’t follow the literary press and latest gossip, it’s been impossible to avoid the conversation around Donna Tartt’s third novel, The Goldfinch. This book has split critics down the middle and sparked real conversations that the literature world hasn’t seen in quite some time. Is it a page-turning book with deep philosophical musings, a fresh take on depression, history and art? Or is it Harry Potter for adults, a bullshit premise with a Mary Sue for a protagonist and a ridiculous series of unlikely events coming together to form a ludicrous story?

The answer, as it always is, lies somewhere in between, but my problem with the highbrow literary folks turning up their noses at The Goldfinch is that just because a story has elements of fairy tale in it doesn’t mean it isn’t a serious novel. Tartt spent 11 years working on this and it shows–it is expertly crafted, and though it is maybe 50-100 pages too long, it hits all of the right notes.

The story is ostensibly about a 13-year-old boy, Theo Decker, who accompanies his art-loving mother to the Met Museum in NYC to check out an exhibition on Dutch masters. A terrorist bomb goes off, killing his mother and many other bystanders in the blast. A dazed Theo scoops up one of his mother’s favorite paintings, Carel Fabritius’s The Goldfinch. The rest of the book follows Theo, painting secretly in tow, through the aftermath of tragedy, from living with a family friend in NYC, to moving in with his alcoholic father in Las Vegas, to becoming an adult.

This run down of the plot makes it sound less interesting than the book itself reads–we are inside Theo’s head and with him as he grows up through this depression. We see his substance abuse issues, his eccentric friendships and many of his triumphs and failures. But through it all is the connecting thread of The Goldfinch and it’s importance to both Theo and the world at large.

The book is ambitious, and sprawling. There are parts of the story (such as towards the end when we are stuck in a hotel room with a fevered Theo) that feel overlong and claustrophobic. Outside of the act of stealing the painting, Theo is a main character that just has shit happen to him rather than actually doing anything himself. Some of the most important characters (like Theo’s Russian mafioso friend Boris, or the kind, Dumbledore-like old man Hobie) feel like cartoon characters. But you know what? That’s OK. It works.

There are very few pages that could be described as boring. Tartt is a true talent; she manages to write from a male perspective well, creates interesting situations, presents interesting philosophical questions about the value of art and beauty and most of all has a really important quality in that she, frankly, just knows her shit. And knowing your shit goes a long way.

Rating: **** 1/2 

Book Review: Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs

These are reviews/thoughts/musings of books read recently. All books rated on a scale of 1-5. Today’s review is Gonzo-journalism legend Hunter S. Thompson’s first published novel, 1967’s ‘Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs’.

Hunter S. Thompson is as close to a household name writer that America’s counterculture has ever produced. He’s synonymous with getting fucked up, is the godfather of Gonzo journalism (a style where the reporter is often involved in the story), and his scathing writings about politics and the world around him. Most of the younger (read: my) generation knows him as the author of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, a drug-trip of a movie with Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro, but he was also a well-respected, albeit crazy political journalist in his time. Check out his incredible obituary of Richard Nixon, or his renowned short piece of Gonzo insanity, The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved. No seriously, go read both of those. Your life will be better off for it. I’ll wait.

Hell’s Angels, Thompson’s first published book, is a nonfiction deep dive into the notorious motorcycle gang, stemming from Thompson’s time spent with them in the mid-60s. And perhaps this is unfair, but knowing what we know now about Thompson, his incredible talents, and his style, the book is a disappointment.

The premise of a legend like Thompson writing about something as interesting as the Hell’s Angels is tantalizing, but Thompson, clearly still finding his voice as a writer, is missing that honed style and manic intensity of his later works. The book is a straightforward effort to get to know the Angels–Thompson pulls few punches, painting them as losers more often than heroes and villains and also exploring how the media coverage of the gang changed their perception publicity and grew their legend.

Too often, though, it reads like a textbook, and the times when Thompson parties with the groups are too often painted in broad strokes rather than detailing experiences. Every so often, you get a taste of Thompson’s beautiful writing and smartass comments, and it lets you know you are indeed reading the work of a generational talent. But too often, you feel like it could have been written by just about anybody.

Perhaps without the raised expectations, this book would hit better–the simple promise of ‘Hunter S Thompson +  Hell’s Angels + drugs + debauchery’ sounds like it can’t miss, but it rarely gets your heart racing. If you’re looking for a close look at the Hell’s Angels of the 60s, a study as to what makes them tick and how they lived, it will deliver at least that. Hell’s Angels is like eating meat and potatoes–it has basic flavor and no kick, and the kick is the whole reason you’re reading Hunter S. Thompson. This one can safely be skipped.

Rating: **

Book Review: All the Pretty Horses

These are reviews/thoughts/musings of books that I have read recently. All books rated on a scale of 1-5. Today’s review is on the first book in Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy, 1992’s ‘All the Pretty Horses’. 

Let’s get this out of the way right here: I am a huge fan of Cormac McCarthy’s work. I think his prose is poetry, Blood Meridian is my all-time favorite book and I named my blog after a line in that novel. I have made it a goal to read all of his works within the next few years  (check out my review of Child of God here). This will be a partisan review.

All the Pretty Horses, the first book in McCarthy’s 90s ‘Border Trilogy’, is lighter fare for Cormac, and more easily digested than his other, more starkly violent work. Before we go any further this needs to be said: All the Pretty Horses is a horrendous title. It sounds like it’ll be a romance novel, it is soft, really has nothing to do with the ensuing story, is not reflective of Cormac’s writing or style whatsoever and feels like an editor tacked it on to help book sales. Other than that though, pretty solid title.

All the Pretty Horses is a more traditional, linear story than Cormac is used to telling–we have a clear hero (a teenager named John Grady) leaving behind an empty existence in his small Texas town with his best friend Rawlins with nothing but some food and their horses to try out life in Mexico. John Grady is a traditional hero, who is moral to a fault, loyal to his friends and principles, a leader with an incredible skill — Rawlins calls him the ‘best he’s ever seen’ with horses and the reader grows to believe he is a horse whisperer of sorts even among the cowboys of the plain.  He is a man without a country and it is through his eyes that we experience this adventure.

Along the way, the boys meet a disturbed and interesting fellow traveler, live a nomadic lifestyle, and find work on a ranch. John Grady falls in love with the ranch owner’s daughter, gets thrown into prison. As per McCarthy, there is violence, loss and darkness throughout their road, but not quite as penetrating as his typical offerings. As a result, this turns into an enjoyable, if underwhelming, novel.

It’s like a great underground band releasing a pop song more palatable for the masses–maybe your mother could get through this one where she couldn’t Blood Meridian. As a McCarthy fan, you enjoy it and recognize it as good, but it doesn’t have the powerful effect and lasting impact on you that works like The Road or even Child of God have–it feels, somehow, safe.

That said–this is still Cormac McCarthy. There is his trademark minimal punctuation (no quotation marks) and it the Cormac syntax and style. There is a lot of Spanish being spoken in the novel–none of it translated for ease of the reader. You are expected to keep up on your own, and it is to Cormac’s credit that he stays true to himself here.

It also has moments of absolutely stunning prose, which is his ace in the hole and consistently impresses. You are reading a master of his craft. Sometimes, during long descriptive passages, I found myself reading out loud just to hear the gorgeous written language of Cormac spoken. Check out the writing in this section, after John Grady wakes up in a prison hospital bed after a violent encounter with another inmate:

“He slept and when he woke he’d dreamt of the dead standing about in their bones and the dark sockets of their eyes that were indeed without speculation bottomed in the void wherein lay a terrible intelligence common to all but of which none would speak. When he woke he knew that men had died in that room.”

I mean, goddamn! That darkness, and the sheer masculine poetry of Cormac’s words (God that sounds pretentious) are unrivaled by almost any other American writer and is the reason even a ‘safe’ Cormac book like this one is head and shoulders above most other books.

Rating: ****

Book Review: The Night of the Gun

These are reviews/thoughts/musings of books that I have read recently. All books rated on a scale of 1-5. Today’s review is on New York Times reporter David Carr’s 2008 memoir ‘The Night of the Gun’. 

Memoirs, by rule, are usually my least favorite books to read. This type of writing is oftentimes literary masturbation, and even the most talented writers somehow get less interesting when they write about themselves. Our currently super-connected society of bloggers, 24/7 social media networks and reality shows allow us to keep our nose in everybody’s business in real time. We are so inundated in the lives of others this that spending 400 pages hearing about a person’s personal troubles is, more often than not, the last thing I want to do.

That said, the best memoirs take us places we’ve never been before, allowing us to take a peek behind the curtain of something unfamiliar. This may explain the rapid ascent of the “junkie memoir”; books about addicts hitting rock bottom and, usually finding redemption. Let’s not make any mistake about this: David Carr’s The Night of the Gun is a junkie memoir, however much Carr tries to dress it up as something else.

Night of the Gun tries to do something different in style, as Carr seems to be as bored with the structure of the memoir as the rest of us. The title stems from an incident in the 80’s where Carr scraped the bottom of the barrel, a one-day catastrophe in which he gets fired from his job because of his substance abuse issues, decides to get hammered with a friend as a response, then turns on his own friend and comes knocking on said friend’s doorstep ready to kick his ass only to find his friend holding a gun and telling him to leave before he calls the police. A couple of decades later, sober and clear-headed, he recounts this incident with this same friend, who points out to him that he is misremembering: it is David himself who had the gun that night.

Stunned by the fact that his memory failed him, Carr decides to put his reporter hat on and investigate the darkest years of his life by going back and interviewing the people around him during that time. The subjects are an interesting cast of characters, from ex-lovers, fellow junkie friends, dealers, drug counselor and, randomly, Tom Arnold (Carr gives everyone only a first name in this book, giving it a very Alcoholics Anonymous feel, so you don’t realize that his comedian friend ‘Tom’ is Arnold until he later marries another comedian with issues named ‘Roseanne’).

The book starts off explosively, with ruminations on memory, drugs and a life lived in tatters, and it is itself a thrilling read for the first quarter of the book. However, the interviews begin to take a repetitive tone–“You were really talented and fucked up” is the gist of all of them–and the story begins to turn into the redemptive junkie memoir Carr seemed to be trying to avoid. His redemption story, while no doubt impressive, just isn’t the page turner that it promised in it’s opening pages.

This is a man with a motor, and it’s a testament to his talent and work ethic that he was able to turn himself from a junkie into a big-time writer for the New York Times, but somehow his redemptive arc, where he finds sobriety and inspiration in the form of his twin daughters, his career and a new wife, misses the mark. The third quarter of the book is a slog to get through and I found myself wondering if I could even finish it at some point. The book has a stronger ending, as Carr spells out the difficulty of life as a recovering addict through his relapse and subsequent struggles even after sobriety and success, but the book ends on a much softer note than it began.

Part of the problem is that Carr fails to explore any reasons for his addiction beyond it running in his Irish blood–he tells you that he got hammered on all kinds of drugs, tells you that he beat his girlfriends, but fails to tell you what inside of him is causing this kind of behavior. His twin daughters serve as the main reason for his recovery, and he paints them as two successful, happy and intelligent girls who overcame great difficulties to become great people. Which is great–but then in the last few pages mentions one of them having psychiatric difficulties, hinting that maybe all is not quite as roses and rainbows as it seems. While I appreciate not wanting to get into the personal life of his teenage daughter, it makes the previous flowery narrative feel somewhat disingenuous.

Carr is not really a good person, and to his credit he does not make an effort to hide it and paint himself as a hero. He is an abuser of both women and drugs, a serial charmer who gets everybody on his side and uses them for his purposes. He proves to be a difficult (if very, very competent boss), a cheapskate (multiple lawyers who helped him in his time of need found themselves stiffed on payment at the end of the day), a liar and a selfish asshole (during his relapse, him getting behind the wheel of a car plastered with his daughters in the car is as bad as anything he did during his 80s downfall). The fact that he is open about this side of himself is admirable, but brownie points does not make a great story.

With all that said–Carr is a good writer (you can tell by his prose he is a reporter by and by) and he at least attempts to do something different with his memories here. That said, reading about drugs and self-destructive partying is only interesting for so long, and despite his best efforts to make this one a little bit different this book, which clocks in at a bloated 400 pages, overstays its welcome.

Rating: **

Book Review: Ready Player One

These are my reviews/thoughts/musings of books that I have read recently. All books rated on a scale of 1-5. Today’s review is on Ernest Cline’s 2011 nerd epic ‘Ready Player One’.

Ready Player One, Ernest Cline’s ode to nerds, video games and 80s pop culture, is fun. It has a creative science fiction story behind it, a cool premise and at times itself feels like a video game. It’s packed with action, cheeky references, an immersive hunt/mystery and is overall genuinely enjoyable for large swaths of the story. However, there are a lot of issues here that are unable to be masked by this initial cleverness.

First, the plotline: We are 30 years in the future, and the world has devolved into a cyberpunk dystopia where reality sucks, economies are crumbling, people are living in poverty and the only thing keeping the world sane is OASIS, a virtual reality role playing game experience that everybody in the world now spends almost every waking hour inside living through virtual avatars. People so prefer this fake world to the real one they live in that we’ve reached the point where children attend school, adults have real jobs and businesses are making real money in this second reality.

Before his death, the eccentric billionaire who created the system sends an announcement to the world that he has hidden an ‘easter egg’ behind a series of three gates, hidden somewhere within OASIS behind walls of 80s pop culture reference and old-school video game challenges. The first person to clear the gates gets access to his fortune and control of the entire OASIS world. The world’s population collectively embarks on the hunt, with the most dedicated egg hunters referred to as ‘gunters’, which is a horrible word that gave me considerable stomach pain every single time it was written in the novel. It comes up A LOT.

Our protagonist, a 17 year old outcast named Wade Watts in real life with the screen name of Parzival, who has no friends or money or social status in real life. Parzival is a gunter (Jesus Christ), which means he is an obsessive studier of 80s pop culture references, which means he spend a significant amount of time ‘researching’ by watching episodes of Family Ties and mastering video games on the Atari. He soon takes a prominent role in this hunt by being the first person to crack the first gate. This sets off a race where he and his gunter friends are competing to close the final gates and find the egg against both each other and an evil corporation who is trying to get the egg for nefarious purposes and is using their considerable resources to rig the game.

We know that our characters are the good guys because they state that if they won the money they would use it to improve the world whereas the evil corporation are the bad guys because would use it to do evil corporation things. Literally, I wish Cline had just named them the Evil Corporation and been done with it. I can’t wait until the movie when scary music plays whenever they show up. Our heroes are all easily-identifiable nerdy social outcasts who cleverly banter with each other and slowly learn the meaning and true importance of friendship. There is also a love story going on between two characters that is can only be described as horrendous.

This all feels very junior high and tween-fiction to me, which is totally a good thing if you’re a teen but I outgrew a long time ago.

Are teens going to get these 80s references? It seems like the pop culture in Ready Player One comes from an older age (I was born in the late 80s and felt like I missed a lot of references).The story is clunky and immature and clearly resonates with a much younger audience, with our heroes going through teenage problems like puberty and isolation and things that stop being interesting to read about the day you lose your virginity.

Listen, Ready Player One was a good time for a big portion of it and I’m only shitting on it because it’s fun to do so, but this is going to be incredible if you belong to one of the following groups: 13-15 year old boys, teenage nerds (who won’t catch the 80s references but will relate to the protagonist outcast), older Star Wars/video game/John Hughes nerds (who will catch the 80s references), and nerds.

Writing a book catering to nerds is totally fine and this one has no qualms about what it is and proudly flies its geeky banner, as it should. But when your climactic battle scene involves the main characters turning into giant robots from 80s cartoons and comic books I’ve never heard of and a part of the climax includes our character playing Pac Man for four hours, I think it’s maybe not for me.

That said, I did have fun with it when I wasn’t rolling my eyes and bought into the world Cline created for the most part. It is a lovingly constructed book and you can tell that Cline is really passionate about Monty Python, Matthew Broderickmovies and obscure Japanese cartoons. And you know what? We can poke fun but you have to admire passion.

In all seriousness, I’m sure this would have been my favorite book as a teenager, though maybe I’m not the audience for it at this point in my life, there’s something to be said for that. Still, it’d be nice if I never heard the word ‘gunter’ ever again.

Rating: ** 1/2