Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Professional Idiot. A Memoir by Steve "Steve-O" Glover

Over the years, lots of people have said that my grammar and spelling are too good for it to actually be me writing the words I post. The fact is that I grew up attending super top-notch schools (I was the son of a corporate executive, who wasn't initially thrilled about my career path). My dad also gave me two choices the summer I turned 16: get a summer job, or go to secretary school to learn how to type. I skated to secretary school so fuckin fast it was incredible. In short, it's me, it's always me-- I think anybody who ever authorizes another person to communicate as them is a fucking moron. Love, Steve-O
From Steve-O's Ask Me Anything on Reddit.

Just a couple of entries ago I said I don't read biographies. Well, here's my second one in a short while!

If you are unfamiliar with Steve-O, please don't Google Image his name because... yeah, just don't. He is one of the guys in the hit MTV series Jackass, where guys kicked each other in the nuts, rode trikes off skating ramps, and made each other puke on camera. 

The reason why I even clicked on Steve-O's AMA was because of my guilty pleasure: I love watching Jackass, or even better, Wildboyz.

Wildboyz was a ridiculous show where Steve-O and Chris Pontius traveled the world in pseudo-David Attenborough nature documentary settings, only to get their rightful comeuppance from wild animals. So when I saw Steve-O's words above in the AMA--you know, the guy's who walks on stilts and gets coconut crabs to nip at his butt cheeks--I had to read this memoir that was mentioned in the AMA thread.

It is so good.

Now, you might expect it to be a high-fiving tale of becoming famous for doing stupid crap on TV while possibly high on a variety of drugs. Well, it is very much that, but it displays a level of humility I was not expecting at all. It's as if Steve-O sat in front of his computer to type up this memoir as an exercise in paying his dues to people he screwed over in the past because he was so selfish and out of control. It takes a lot to admit that you have behaved poorly, instead of blaming the behavior on anyone or anything else around you.

I guess that's what I found refreshing in this memoir. It's well written, extremely entertaining and funny, but it's also self-deprecating and honest. You can tell it's his story in his own words, expletives included when they are needed--once you get over him having a tone of voice that is not just raspy laughter. The man lived many of his formative years in London, so you even get a bit of British dry humor in the mix. Just as you think his attempts at being famous can't get any more absurd, there's a chapter titled OK, Who Wants to Hear Me Rap?

Although I had some good laughs, the bits toward the end are pretty rough to read: Steve-O has to largely quote other people, including his dad and sister, as he has barely any recollection of the time himself: he was constantly high on a cocktail of drugs, paranoid about voices and raving about other dimensions. Classic Philip K. Dick stuff. His former cast members had to arrange a fairly aggressive intervention and have him committed, which no doubt saved his life.

Professional Idiot is probably not the first book people would think of buying as a Christmas, birthday or Valentine's gift to anyone (the photos in it... sheesh!), but it's a great reflection on the desire to be the center of attention. In its core, it's about a kid who convinced himself early on he would just disappoint others around him with his actions, so why not go all the way and be the craziest person anyone could ever meet if that granted attention.

By the way, Steve-O is still goofing around and doing crazy stunts, so don't think that he regrets everything.

If you need a gateway to reading Steve-O, here is short HuffPo post about writing the memoir.

Also, a library plug: if you have an eReader and you do not venture to the library that often, check to see if your library has made eBook borrowing available. The paper copy of this memoir had multiple holds on it, so I downloaded it straight to my Kindle from the Seattle Public Library as an eBook loan. Perfect!

Monday, February 17, 2014

My Sister, My Love. The Intimate Story of Skyler Rampike by Joyce Carol Oates

* The canny reader will note that there must be a reason for highlighting this eccentric individual who appears fleetingly in this chapter as both "kindly" and somewhat sinister. Keep the rubbery-lipped young man in mind! (If I were a literary writer, I could assume that readers were primed to read my prose with, well--reverence, and care. But I am not, and so I can't. But note that nothing in this document is extraneous.)

For those readers--potentially, millions!--with an avid interest in American-suburban social climbing through playdating, this is the chapter you've been waiting. 

Oates is mean.

This story pinches and needles the reader constantly by making very explicit jabs at people being obsessed with celebrities and gruesome high-profile crimes, or at snooty readers who would not give a book in this genre--essentially, true crime--typically the time of day.

The latter is the best kind of mean. Because the book is written from the view point of a heavily medicated older brother of a 6-year-old figure skater prodigy who was found murdered in their home, the supposed author Skyler Rampike fills the story with footnotes, notes to the editor, and sarcastic apologies if he is not writing the story of a murdered girl in as gripping a way as the audience might want or, alternatively, not as stereotypically as people obsessed with reading trashy true crime stories would like.

Many times Skyler stops his recounting of the story to say, ah-hah, you thought I would use cheap suspense here, didn't you? Well no fear, the person I'm talking about is just X, so you don't have to feel suspense anymore.

It's a frigging Brechtian opera, this story. Many times, Skyler throws in sarcastic cliffhangers insinuating that he will reveal the true nature of the murder in the next chapter, with a cliched "Read on, dear reader" at the end of it. You kind of feel bad about being a shitty person; interested in social porn, you know?

On the surface, this novel is a meandering memoir of a brother who has been silently accused in the media of murdering her own sister but in his medicated haze he is quite unable to write in a linear fashion about his experiences and the dreams and memories that are brought about by sudden triggers. He may write down something shocking and on the next page plead the reader to forget about it, because he is not sure where the heck that memory came from and whether it was even true. 

The same images are repeated over and over again: the description of footage from his sister's, Bliss Rampike's, skating competitions that similarly were repeated over and over again in news, talk shows and gossip shows after her death; the description of the final family portrait that the family took, which also was reprinted in tabloids multiple times and which Skyler cannot escape even ten years after the murder took place.

If you are wondering why this all sounds really familiar, it's because this all kind of happened in real life, which makes this book even... meaner? I just started looking into this old case, and my goodness: everything down to the ransom note and suspicions are echoed in this fictitious story. 

Oates is able to make the metafiction work, while still writing a pretty damned good thriller. There are a few genuinely chilling moments, where suddenly you remember a single word from a few chapters ago that now has become a clue to who the real murderer was. 

It's one of those stories where any reader can make it their own: you can read it as a narrative about obsessing over celebrities and trashy gossip without caring how someone's life can be ruined over it. It can also be read as criticism to medicating our youth instead of letting them feel real feelings: Skyler was medicated for a variety of issues even before his sister was murdered, whereas basically he was just angry about his parents' behavior and absence in his life. It definitely addresses parents who vigorously live through their children without listening to their actual needs. It can also be read just as a creepy whodunnit.

The previous Oates I read was very different: although it sort of concentrated on a crime and a family living through the crime as well, the mood was much more dreamlike and just sad. This one is raw, angry and, like I said, mean. It's a bully of a book. If Oates can adopt such different voices and styles this easily, I can't wait to read more from her, no matter how upsetting the stories are.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The Pact. A Love Story by Jodi Picoult

James stared into [his patient's] dilated, distorted eye. He nodded, suddenly drained of all his earlier enthusiasm. [...] The panel at the New England Journal of Medicine would rescind the award when they learned about his suicidal son, on trial for murder. Surely you did not pay homage to a vision specialist who had not seen this coming.

Romeo and Juliet is often referred to as a tale of undying, forever love. The Pact is a story about realistic love and what happens when teenagers are mesmerized by the romantic notion of undying love.

Don't let that cheesy cover fool you. Jodi Picoult is excellent at writing about terrible things happening to good people, who then have to make tough choices. Her stories do not have a finger-wagging morality about them but instead, they are introspective: she plants thoughts that hopefully will make us readers understand why someone would make a completely opposite choice from ours, even if we do not agree at all with that choice. The stories teach empathy.

The Pact begins with a death and one botched-up death: one of the teenagers in this young lovers' suicide pact actually survives to the relief and subsequent horror of the four parents, who had lived as neighbors and watched their kids grow together and eventually fall in love.

Saying that this is a modern day Romeo and Juliet would be too cliched, but I can't help it! This time, though, readers are left to deal with the aftermath of such a suicide pact when people frantically look for anyone to blame. Surely the blame lies in the finger that pulled the trigger? Friends? Society? The parents who had been oblivious to any problems their kids may have?

The story begins on the evening of the death, and moves forward in real time in chapters titled "Now" to look into the parents' survival strategies and the lies they tell themselves, and to whether this was not a suicide but a cold-blooded murder. "Now" is intermingled with chapters titled "Then," which begin from the day the teenagers' parents became neighbors. The stories move forward until the final day in court in present time, where the last "Then" chapter takes the place of the accused's turn at the witness stand, recounting the day of the death.

It was fascinating to read about how these characters broke down and what lengths they went to in order to either protect a mythology about their family or to attempt to live a normal life again. Some of it is absolutely horrific, and I wound up hating some of the characters for being so unreasonable and calculatingly evil. But I also understood why they ended up that way.

The ending is quite genius in its unsettling nature. I actually was surprised at how I did not foresee the ending (and I'm not referring to the decision at the trial--anyone has a 50/50 chance of guessing it right). The final pages felt like cruelty coming from the hands of the author who so lovingly wrote about the protagonists, but it made so much sense and I would not have wanted any other ending. Dangit, Picoult was able to make me empathize even with her decision to write the story the way she did! See how good she is?

Friday, February 7, 2014

The Art of Drew Struzan by Drew Struzan and David J. Schow

Before reading this highly personal art book I saw the documentary Drew: The Man Behind the Poster (available on Netflix). Although I was familiar with almost all of his movie-related work, I did not know who he was until then. For reference, he made these: original Star Wars. Back to the Future. Blade Runner. Harry Potter.

I went to the library to pick up his book to stare at details in his art up close, now that the documentary had educated me on what all was involved in producing the images. I did not expect the book to be more than a coffee table book on art, so it shocked me with its honesty and, quite frankly, justified bitterness.

See, Struzan was pretty much screwed over by a business partner for almost a decade. You'll learn about this in the documentary. In addition, although directors were flocking to him, begging him to paint a poster for their upcoming movies because they knew he's the only one who would get it right, the studio execs would usually say sorry, but we went with another poster instead because Struzan's work was "too artistic." Instead, you get quickly made movie posters that just show the main characters standing or sitting in line, probably against a white background. Or just closeups of the main actors' faces.

To give a specific example, Pan's Labyrinth was one that received the "too artistic" criticism: the art was requested by the director, Guillermo del Toro, and Struzan painted an image based on del Toro's sketch. Del Toro loved it; the studio decided to use this instead. It's not bad either, but it just has a different feel to it.

As Struzan describes his posters he delves into the background politics of each. It is quite upsetting to read about a man who is absolutely amazing at what he does, highly revered for his skills by others and even his subjects, but then swept aside for the purpose of dumbing down the content for the mass audiences--which the audience did not ask for.

The more I thought about his work the clearer it became why he was so sought after: his posters embody the feel of the movie you are going to watch, not just a Photoshopped head of the main character to tell you that yup, that guy's going to be in it. If I recall right, this also becomes evident in the documentary in the way people speak about his work. 

It is great to have an artist in the popular culture scene whose skills go way beyond just technique. Then again, it is unfortunate that he has been pushed aside to retirement, where he now focuses on creating other art on his spare time. Art is divided enough into popular and high art, as if those two should never mix--let there be Struzan, who bridges the gap. 

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Orchid Fever. A Horticultural Tale of Love, Lust, and Lunacy by Eric Hansen

There is something distinctive about the sight and sound of a human body falling from the rain forest canopy.

This is the first sentence in this quite funny and intriguing book about people who are orchid freaks, and the book just gets better from the first sentence onward.

Hansen follows orchid lovers around the world wide-eyed in a cloud of disbelief at what he is witnessing: he goes on clandestine orchid finding trips and interprets to the locals in the rain forest that yes, these silly men with their collapsible toilets and power bars have paid thousands of dollars just to take a picture of a flower instead of using it, say, for medicine. He also describes the erotic nature of orchid lovers' conventions, where he is surrounded in the darkness by silent fidgeting, heavy breathing and occasional gasping when new orchid hybrids are introduced to appreciative murmur. Although Hansen finds his subjects and obsession over a flower hilarious he slowly realizes that he has become obsessed himself: in hunting down all of the interesting characters who occupy the hall of fame in the world of orchid lovers.

Hansen not only makes gentle fun of his subjects when it is appropriate--when the levels of absurdity are just too high not to--but he also appreciates the passion with which these orchid lovers lead their lives. The book is less of a history of orchid lunacy and more of a picture of human obsession and where it can lead people, from punching a security official in the kisser at the airport and getting detained to finding out that people who make laws about importing and preserving orchids seem to have ulterior motives that serve only themselves (quelle surprise!).

Hansen's carefully placed dry humor is guffaw-inducing, yet I did not emerge from reading this as if orchid collectors and growers were a butt of a joke. On the contrary: while orchid obsession, as any obsession, can get quite ludicrous, under Hansen's guidance it all also makes sense.

I highly recommend Orchid Fever for anyone who is looking for an entertaining read about the absurdity of humans, even if you couldn't care less about flowers.