You don't get to choose where you're from. Fate puts you where it pleases, and that's that. I didn't choose to grow up in Upstate, to think that sausa...moreYou don't get to choose where you're from. Fate puts you where it pleases, and that's that. I didn't choose to grow up in Upstate, to think that sausage and peppers were a national delicacy. I could've been born two streets over, where I would've learned to skate as soon as I could walk. Instead, I rode the bus an hour to podunk farming towns like Camden and Holland Patent to play basketball in decrepit gyms against thick farm boys whose shorts were too tight and who sweated too much. All those pasty moon-faced girls in the crowd, close enough they could trip you as you ran past.
I didn't choose to grow up trudging through the three feet of snow, down the steep icy hill on which my dad insisted on parking, to watch Sherman Douglas and Rony Seikaly play in the Carrier Dome. It was what I'd always known, like Cosmos Pizza and Eerie Boulevard and away games at New Hartford. It was simply home.
Scott Raab didn't choose to be from Cleveland anymore than he chose his mother or father. He didn't set out to know the suffering of the Cleveland fan, he was born into it. But once born a Clevelander, Raab embraced it. He witnessed the last triumphant moment in Cleveland sports, the 1964 NFL Championship Game, and he's not forgotten it, carrying the ticket stub of the game as a talisman of sorts, a charm meant to bring forth another championship.
The man who was supposed to deliver that championship was LeBron James. James was born in Akron, and like us all, he didn't choose that. But unlike Raab and other decent people in the world, James didn't respect that fact. He didn't understand that where you're from, in a lot of ways, is who you are. You can go where you want to go and do what you want to do, but you can't change that fact. It sticks.
Maybe it started, as Raab says, when he wore that Yankee hat to the Indians' playoff game. Maybe it started years before that, when he chose to root for not just the Yankees, but Duke and the Cowboys, as well (And I'd guess that if he didn't play in the NBA, he'd root for the Lakers, too). Whenever it started, it reached its apotheosis with "The Decision," the moment LeBron decided to turn his back on his hometown, and in the process, many of the rest of us, as well.
No, LeBron James should've known better. And that's what makes this book, this rage-fueled ride, so satisfying. Raab takes him to task for 300 plus pages, pointing out his every shortcoming, his every arrogant flaw. If this sounds unfair, consider that James set himself up for this with his actions, and then doubled-down on that when he fired off his ill-considered "Tomorrow, they have to live their lives with all their problems." Translation: I'm rich, so you can suck it, nothing bothers me. This book is one fan's way of saying "Go fuck yourself" to that.
It's also a brilliant meditation on the things we don't choose -- home, family, ancestry. It has hilarious moments, it has heartbreaking passages. It's raw and visceral as few books are, and as I said on The Millions earlier this month, it's the best book about sports fandom since A Fan's Notes.
As an addendum: I read a lot of books on my phone this year, and holding this book in my hands, feeling its pages and its smooth cover in my hands as I read it on the bus was such a joy. That it had a provocative title and a bunch of Star of Davids on the cover was a bonus -- lots of odd looks on the bus. In a year when I succumbed to the conveniences of digital reading, this book, as well as the Grantland Quarterly and The Art of Fielding, have reminded me that -- cliche though it may be -- I still really do love the feel of books, that holding the object in my hands is a sensation unto itself.(less)
Disappointing, mostly because the bar had been set so high by Baer's previous books, particularly See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in t...moreDisappointing, mostly because the bar had been set so high by Baer's previous books, particularly See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA's War on Terrorism. The first half of the book lived up to that earlier title, with Bob and Dayna trading incredible spy stories. A particular highlight was the section in which Bob brought Yuri, the KGB agent, to the US for a vacation. Yuri, a native of Tajikistan, marveled at the TV in his hotel room, the meals they served on the plane, the Clemson football game he attended. Great stuff. I also enjoyed seeing Dayna's side of the CIA. She had more the action-hero career than Bob did, it seems.
Unfortunately, the book didn't feel like it held together as it should have. It read more like a series of vignettes than a narrative, and as much as I'm happy for them (since they are, you know, real people), I didn't find myself that engaged with their adoption struggle.
If you're looking for a Robert Baer book to read, I would definitely start with See No Evil and Sleeping with the Devil. While this offered something a little different, it didn't thrill me in quite the way those did.(less)
This book is remarkably easy to parody. Here, I'll try:
"I was crossing Tompkins Square Park when I ran into a young man wearing a gabardine vest. He s...moreThis book is remarkably easy to parody. Here, I'll try:
"I was crossing Tompkins Square Park when I ran into a young man wearing a gabardine vest. He smiled at me and called me "Sister." It was a young George Carlin. Robert hated him because he frequently had flakes of rye bread in his beard, but I loved how he could make me laugh with his impressions of Mick Jagger. On this morning, though, we wept together at the news that Paul McCartney would have to sell his house in Cannes. It was a sort of paradise for us, even though we'd never been. George gave me a feather to put in my hair, and I took it home and pressed it between two pieces of crepe de chine, where it left a ghostly impression. Robert insisted on using it in a construction, and finally I relented, though I knew I'd never get it back. It was a sacrifice to art, the sort of thing Rimbaud would've done."
I think this parodic potential arises from the book's total and complete lack of irony. This is the most earnest, sincere book I've read in a long time, and that's what makes it so heartbreaking. Smith begins the book with an abundance of naivete, and in many ways, she never loses the idealism with which she begins her career. Written in a lyrical, elegiac tone, this is, at its heart, a book about the bond two artists develop. There's a remarkable amount of honest in the pages, and Smith's and Mapplethorpe's friendship is unique. They were lovers, collaborators, confidants, rivals...Their lives were the stuff of legend, and this book is a valiant effort to put that legend on the page.
If you've ever held the romantic "starving artist" cliche in esteem, this is the book for you. Smith spends paragraphs talking about how hungry she was when she first moved to New York, and she isn't using the word as a euphemism for ambition -- she really needed to eat. Upon her return from a season in Paris, Mapplethorpe greets her in a feverish state, suffering from abscessed wisdom teeth and gonorrhea. And yet! They lived the lives of artists, staying up into the wee hours creating, writing, singing. They knew everyone. Harry Smith, Allen Ginsburg, Sam Shepard, Jim Carroll, Todd Rundgren, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin -- they all passed through Smith's life, and they all make memorable appearances in the book. It's a name-dropper's paradise, and yet, I didn't come away from the book feeling as though Smith was boasting or exaggerating her own life. I'm sure she's omitted some unfortunate moments on her rise to the top, but she seems honest about her own shortcomings (She freely admits that she acted like a jerk after her first big poetry reading, for instance).
I knew nothing of Robert Mapplethorpe beyond his work and the controversy it had caused in the late 80s (I was too young to understand much of what he was trying to say, though I could understand the controversy just fine). The portrait Smith paints of Mapplethorpe is one of a passionate, wildly creative artist, and also of a man driven by his ambition to become famous. Her friendship with him was clearly the defining moment of her life, and reading about it was a pleasure. I often felt lost in this book, and I suspect that that's the only way to read it -- to just plow through it. I don't think I share all of Smith's ideas about art, but I respect her passion and her talent as a writer. Her prose is clear and direct and eminently readable.
And maybe best of all, wherever I took this book, people would comment on it. "I just finished it. It's heartbreaking." Or "I wish I had her passion." I love when I read a book that inspires that kind of connection between people. It makes me feel, even if only for a moment, that I live in the kind of world that Patti Smith lives in.(less)
If my last review required a disclaimer (for knowing the author), this one requires some sort of legal note. I'm hopelessly biased when it comes to th...moreIf my last review required a disclaimer (for knowing the author), this one requires some sort of legal note. I'm hopelessly biased when it comes to this book, as I am thanked in the acknowledgments (!), a first for me. So take what you read here with a grain of salt, but...
I really loved this book! Of course, I'm a dog guy, so I was the right market for it, but Klam's sense of humor and her skill as a writer kept me turning the pages and laughing (and even tearing up, from time to time) throughout. At first, I was skeptical of the structure of the book -- each chapter is meant to be a lesson Klam learned from a dog -- but it won me over by the end. The "lesson" from Dahlia is particularly poignant, I think.
The book opens with Klam adopting her first Boston Terrier, the wise, wonderful Otto. I'd read Please Excuse My Daughter: A Memoir, so I felt like I knew Otto a little bit, and it was great to read more about him here. There's a talent to writing about animals without manipulating the reader (The old adage of not killing dogs in fiction comes to mind here), and I think Klam walks the line beautifully. Her love for Otto is obvious, but when he passes, so close to her daughter's birth, she must carry on, must keep going. Her hard-won perspective is really something to read.
Without a doubt my favorite section of the book is the one that features Dahlia, an aging female Boston Terrier (allegedly -- the dog is so strange looking that people spend a lot of time speculating what the mix must be) that Klam and her family take in after it turns up at a particularly rough pound in Brooklyn (Of course the rough pound is in Brooklyn). I won't spoil the great surprise that Dahlia has, but let me just say that she is as real and awesome as most characters in novels I've read. She's a real hero.
And, man, is this book funny. Take this paragraph, for example, in which Klam describes Dahlia:
"I told Paul it reminded me of when I was a kid growing up and a friend of mine had a grandmother who lived with her family. She didn't talk much, or wear flashy jewelry, or have her hair done, or smell good, like my grandmother; she just sat in a chair with her silver bed hair and a frayed men's cardigan, just watching us, and every so often saying, "You shouldn't play so close to the tree," or "Watch it by the pachysandra," or "I don't think your mother wants you running in the house." It was always kind of a bummer when you went there and realized she was out of her room. That was Dahlia to me, the unwanted, kvetchy grandmother."
And as funny as it is (and it is a very funny and fun book), there were moments when I found myself tearing up. I can't help it -- reading about dog's dying gets to me (and I was listening to Tom Waits, too, okay?).
A satisfying book, and a fast read. I can't recommend it enough.(less)
There are a few books I'd like to mail to President Obama, not because I hope he'll read them and talk about them, and therefore get everyone else to...moreThere are a few books I'd like to mail to President Obama, not because I hope he'll read them and talk about them, and therefore get everyone else to read them (though that'd be nice) but because I think they say something about an important issue in a way that I simply can't. I could write Obama a letter about torture, about how I feel about it being used in my name, but it wouldn't achieve half of what Flynn does in this bizarre, floating memoir.
Somehow, despite enormous odds, Flynn manages to tie together several disparate threads here -- his relationship to his parents (his mother committed suicide when he was in his teens while his father is an alcoholic ex-con who lived on the streets for years), his partner's impending pregnancy and the tangled route they took to being lovers, and the Abu Ghraib prison scandal. In the hands of another writer, I might have found myself craving more of the personal and less the political (or vice versa), but Flynn does the balancing act, in part because he refuses to commit to the strictures of time, weaving together all the different pieces into a whole that is much larger than the sum of its already considerable parts.
As one might expect from a poet, Flynn writes beautiful sentences and heartbreaking paragraphs. This is maybe the ideal book to read in tiny pieces, a bit here and there, as the mood strikes. Without a doubt, my favorite piece is "All living things have shoulders," about a scrap of paper he once found on the floor of a public school in Harlem. There are some incredible revelations in this book that Flynn delivers almost as asides (that his father may have been involved in the CIA's notorious MK Ultra program while serving time in federal prisons), and the notes at the end of the book are worth reading, particularly for their sense of humor, a welcome reprieve at the end of a very heavy, very emotional book.(less)
So why not 5 stars? Here's my overly-lawyerly explanation. If I gave this book 5 stars, everybody would be like, "Oh, sure, Patrick, you gave that boo...moreSo why not 5 stars? Here's my overly-lawyerly explanation. If I gave this book 5 stars, everybody would be like, "Oh, sure, Patrick, you gave that book 5 stars because you have, ,a link exchange thing going with Julie, not because you really liked the book." I guess I thought by giving the book 4 stars, you'd all see that I was rating based on merit alone, and would be more likely to heed my review. I don't know, maybe it's a flawed strategy. I really liked this book. I think everybody should read it (I mean not everybody. If you're a self-important ass hole, then by all means, don't), and I think everybody would like it.
For me, reading a memoir should illicit a couple of responses. One should be plain old recognition. In almost everything I've read and loved, I've found something of myself in it. And man, I'm all over this book. "Lacking motivation and failing to find employment suited to your abilities?" Check. "Depression caused by endless hours of daytime TV in lieu of a job?" Oh, yeah. I've been there. “Quoting liberally from the movie Diner so as to alienate all people not in the know?” You better believe I’ve done that. Seriously, there were moments when I felt like Julie Klam had been spying on my life, then wrote about it. But what makes a great memoir great is that it takes those circumstances, those moments that everyone's felt, and expresses them like no one has before. Klam does that over and over again.
You'll hear about the humor in this book, and it is funny (I laughed out loud quite a few times), but what got me is that the humor doesn't overwhelm the other emotions on display. There are moments in this book that are heartbreaking. Klam lets them play. She doesn't use every instance as a chance to make a cheap joke, and when she does decide to crack a joke, you'll just want to sob.
It's really a great book. I read it in 3 days, and looked forward to it every minute. If I had one complaint, it's that the conceit of the book, that Klam's mother didn't prepare her for adult life because she was busy pampering her through childhood, doesn't hold up throughout the book. It comes together nicely at the end when Klam becomes a mother, but there are moments when that thread seems gone altogether. That's not much of a criticism, in that the book doesn't need that central conceit.
Everybody should read this book. I'll stop rambling now. (less)