Kate’s Review: “American Kingpin”

31920777Book: “American Kingpin: The Epic Hunt for the Criminal Mastermind Behind the Silk Road” by Nick Bilton

Publishing Info: Portfolio, May 2017

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: In 2011, a twenty-six-year-old libertarian programmer named Ross Ulbricht launched the ultimate free market: the Silk Road, a clandestine Web site hosted on the Dark Web where anyone could trade anything–drugs, hacking software, forged passports, counterfeit cash, poisons–free of the government’s watchful eye.
It wasn’t long before the media got wind of the new Web site where anyone–not just teenagers and weed dealers but terrorists and black hat hackers–could buy and sell contraband detection-free. Spurred by a public outcry, the federal government launched an epic two-year manhunt for the site’s elusive proprietor, with no leads, no witnesses, and no clear jurisdiction. All the investigators knew was that whoever was running the site called himself the Dread Pirate Roberts.

The Silk Road quickly ballooned into $1.2 billion enterprise, and Ross embraced his new role as kingpin. He enlisted a loyal crew of allies in high and low places, all as addicted to the danger and thrill of running an illegal marketplace as their customers were to the heroin they sold. Through his network he got wind of the target on his back and took drastic steps to protect himself–including ordering a hit on a former employee. As Ross made plans to disappear forever, the Feds raced against the clock to catch a man they weren’t sure even existed, searching for a needle in the haystack of the global Internet.
Drawing on exclusive access to key players and two billion digital words and images Ross left behind, Vanity Fair correspondent and New York Times bestselling author Nick Bilton offers a tale filled with twists and turns, lucky breaks and unbelievable close calls. It’s a story of the boy next door’s ambition gone criminal, spurred on by the clash between the new world of libertarian-leaning, anonymous, decentralized Web advocates and the old world of government control, order, and the rule of law. Filled with unforgettable characters and capped by an astonishing climax, American Kingpin might be dismissed as too outrageous for fiction. But it’s all too real.

Review: There is a misconception about the true crime genre, and that is the thought that there are only books about blood, violence, murder, and serial killers to be had. While those are certainly some of the more popular topics in the scope of the genre, you can find a large number of books about less violent crimes. So for those of you who like the idea of reading up on something salacious and scandalous, but are squeamish when it comes to violence and death, I may have a good true crime fit for you. It involves a whole lot of the scandal and law breaking, and outlandish twists and turns that don’t seem real, but is, for the most part, low on body counts. And you may never look at “The Princess Bride” the same way again after reading it. Let me introduce you to “American Kingpin”.

“American Kingpin” is the story of the rise of The Silk Road, a website that acted as a black market for drugs that was hidden within the Dark Web. It was founded by a man named Ross Ulbricht, who initially saw it as a way for people to have access to illegal drugs, a value that lined up with his Libertarian beliefs. His internet handle was “The Dread Pirate Roberts”, and he remained fairly anonymous for years. As his website and fortune grew, so did his love of power, and his need to hold onto it by any means necessary. Along with his story are the stories of the various law enforcement officers who tracked him, and even got embroiled with him and The Silk Road, in hopes of catching him. And boy, is it a doozy. Nick Bilton does a very good job of keeping all of the complicated character threads straight, and slowly weaves them together to create an all encompassing big picture that reads like a thriller novel. He writes not so much sympathetic, but well laid out backgrounds of the people, and I think that seeing Ulbricht especially in a complex light was important. But it never took away from the fact that this guy was an entitled, privileged, single minded narcissist who thought he was untouchable, and went from drum circle college student to a man who was taking out hits on those who crossed him. While calling himself The Dread Pirate Roberts of all things!

The narrative itself moves at a fast pace, and given that the events are so outlandish that they read like fiction, it has a high entertainment factor. Like the cast of players, I felt like I was reading a thriller novel as opposed to a non fiction account, and it really speaks to how good of a narrative non fiction writer Bilton is. There were multiple moments I shouted out ‘ARE YOU KIDDING ME?!’ Specifically when it was noted that The Silk Road considered dabbling in human organs. HUMAN. ORGANS.

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I had to set the book down and laugh in despondency. (source)

As Ulbricht’s scheming escalated the tension did as well. The book is very well researched, and it’s constructed in a way that gives a pretty evenly distributed amount between the players and the goings on in all of their lives, and how they connected to each other. I had a very hard time putting it down as I was reading, and even though I had a pretty basic working knowledge of the story thanks to the “Casefile” podcast series on it, there was still a lot of information at hand that never got bogged down by the sheer volume of it all. Bilton is also certain to push back against the idea of the Libertarian Utopia of the Silk Road being ‘victimless’ in its drug business, detailing one especially sad story about someone who was an unwitting purveyor of drugs from the site… and then suffered terrible consequences because of it. While Bilton never outright maligns the values that Ulbricht was striving to champion, he definitely makes a very compelling case for debating them. It never feels preachy; just matter of fact.

All in all, “American Kingpin” is a thrilling write up of a truly unbelievable crime. If you’ve been curious about the new true crime interest in our culture, but are wary when it comes to violence and murder, I would absolutely recommend this rollercoaster of a book.

Rating 8: A tense and VERY addictive true crime thriller, “American Kingpin” does a great job chronicling the rise and fall of a black market empire and the man who was behind it all.

Reader’s Advisory:

“American Kingpin” is included on the Goodreads lists “Scary Tech? Big Data, Surveillance, Information Overload, Tech Addiction, Propaganda, Dark Money..”, and “Murderino Reading List!”

Find “American Kingpin” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Double Review: “The Real Lolita” and “Rust & Stardust”

Books: “The Real Lolita: The Kidnapping of Sally Horner and the Novel that Scandalized The World” by Sarah Weinman; “Rust & Stardust” by T. Greenwood

Publishing Info: Ecco, September 2018; St. Martin’s Press, August 2018

Where Did I Get These Books: The library; I was sent an ARC from the publisher

Book Descriptions: Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita is one of the most beloved and notorious novels of all time. And yet very few of its readers know that the subject of the novel was inspired by a real-life case: the 1948 abduction of eleven-year-old Sally Horner.

Weaving together suspenseful crime narrative, cultural and social history, and literary investigation, The Real Lolita tells Sally Horner’s full story for the very first time. Drawing upon extensive investigations, legal documents, public records, and interviews with remaining relatives, Sarah Weinman uncovers how much Nabokov knew of the Sally Horner case and the efforts he took to disguise that knowledge during the process of writing and publishing Lolita.

Sally Horner’s story echoes the stories of countless girls and women who never had the chance to speak for themselves. By diving deeper in the publication history of Lolita and restoring Sally to her rightful place in the lore of the novel’s creation, The Real Lolita casts a new light on the dark inspiration for a modern classic.


When 11 year-old Sally Horner steals a notebook from the local Woolworth’s, she has no way of knowing that 52 year-old Frank LaSalle, fresh out of prison, is watching her, preparing to make his move. Accosting her outside the store, Frank convinces Sally that he’s an FBI agent who can have her arrested in a minute—unless she does as he says. 

This chilling novel traces the next two harrowing years as Frank mentally and physically assaults Sally while the two of them travel westward from Camden to San Jose, forever altering not only her life, but the lives of her family, friends, and those she meets along the way.

Review: I want to extend a special thank you to St. Martin’s Press for sending me an ARC of “Rust & Stardust”.

For someone who reads a whole lot for her profession and her pleasure, I have a pretty gaping hole in my literary experience when it comes to ‘the classics’. Between taking not so typical literature classes in high school and majoring in psychology, my exposure to classic books was limited, and while I’ve tried to pick up the pieces here and there I still have many left on the ‘theoretically to read’ list. So no, I have not read “Lolita” by Vladimir Nabokov, though the notoriety of the story means that I am pretty familiar with it as a whole. I’m in no rush to read it, not for any other reason than there are so many other books out there that interest me more. But when I got an ARC of the book “Rust & Stardust” by T. Greenwood, the fact that it was based on the very real story of Sally Horner, the girl who served as inspiration to Dolores Haze in Nabokov’s book, caught my attention. And then I heard that a nonfiction book about Sally Horner, called “The Real Lolita” by Sarah Weinman, was also soon to be available. So I decided to bide my time, and to read the two as a pair so that I could compare and contrast the two, which each tell the same story in very different ways.

And perhaps it’s implied, but just in case, I need to give some serious content warnings for both of these books. They do, after all, involve the kidnapping, rape, and abuse of a little girl.

“The Real Lolita” is a non fiction work that juxtaposes Sally Horner’s kidnapping at the hands of Frank La Salle with Vladimir Nabokov trying to write “Lolita”. Weinman surmises that Nabokov, who had been having stumbling block after literary stumbling block as he tried to write what would become his most famous work, heard the sensationalized news stories surrounding the case and used it in his work. Nabokov denied this again and again, but Weinman lays out the similarities between the two cases, and the timeline that he was working within and how it wa well within the highest media furor surrounding the case. It isn’t really a criticism of Nabokov’s decision to use this story as inspiration so much as it’s an indictment of him lifting a girl’s very real pain to profit from it without giving her any credit. I appreciated that she wasn’t going after the inspiration piece, because it isn’t uncommon for creatives to take inspiration from real life horrors and to make them into a fictional work. The issue is that Nabokov was too proud to admit that he in all probability did find inspiration in this trauma victim, which is deeply problematic in and of itself, and couldn’t be bothered to even acknowledge her pain and how successful of a novel it was. Her evidence is well researched and carefully laid out, and the details that she found regarding the Horner case and what her life was like before, during, and after the ordeal gives voice to a girl whose trauma was appropriated for a novel with the subject of her inspiration twisted and misinterpreted  into a nymph-like seductress (even if that wasn’t Nabokov’s intention). It’s a book that I had a hard time reading because of the awful manipulations and abuses La Salle did to Horner, though I appreciated how frank and ‘just the facts’ Weinman was because of the horrors of the case. I also liked that she wasn’t particularly fiery in her critiques of Nabokov, but that she simply presented the evidence as it was and let it speak for itself. Weinman’s book gives this girl a voice, a voice that wasn’t afforded to her in the moment, and that has been drowned out because of time and a novel that overshadowed it.

“Rust & Stardust” is also the Sally Horner story, but it has been adapted into a work of fiction. T. Greenwood  makes it very clear in a long author’s note that she approached this story through the eyes of a fiction author, but tried to keep a good number of the details, especially in regards to Sally’s experience, realistic and plausible. The prose flows neatly and succinctly, and while it is a longer book than “The Real Lolita” I found that it felt like a quicker read just because Greenwood paced it so well. The story is pretty much what you’d expect; Sally Horner is caught by Frank LaSalle as she’s stealing a notebook from the store, and what follows is the story of Sally’s kidnapping, captivity, and return, as well as the perspectives of those in her life during her absence. While it was definitely hard to read at times, Greenwood never made it feel lurid or exploitative. The emotions were there, but were able to remain untangled from bad taste. Greenwood also gave herself some creative plot leeway (though not in regards to Sally, which was good) so that she could highlight the problematic attitudes of the post-War American culture, specifically when it comes to abuse towards girls and women. Whenever someone would raise doubts about Sally’s relationship to Frank, almost every time they were told to be quiet because the very notion of bad intentions was disgusting and inappropriate. Frank is able to get away with his predation because the people around him and Sally don’t want to face that it’s happening. Which brings me back to the criticisms of “Lolita”, in that some people, be it Nabokov’s intent or not, have romanticized the story of Humbert Humbert and the ‘nymph’ he fixates on. Greenwood doesn’t give any leeway for that because the story is Sally’s, and those who care about her.

Reading “The Real Lolita” and “Rust & Stardust” has given me a larger picture of a tale I thought I knew, and in their own ways they tell the side that has been lost to time and literary critique and accolades. If you like “Lolita”, and even if you don’t like it, these books will give it more context, a context that it has probably always needed.

Ratings 8: Though the backstory to “Lolita” has been glossed over and outright ignored by some (and denied by others), “The Real Lolita” and “Rust & Stardust” strive to give Sally Horner the ability to tell her story.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Real Lolita” is included on the Goodreads lists “Women’s Lives”, and “Best Crime Books of 2018”.

“Rust & Stardust” is included on the Goodreads lists “#MeToo”.

Find “The Real Lolita” and “Rust & Stardust” at your library using WorldCat!

 

Kate’s Review: “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark”

35068432Book: “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer” by Michelle McNamara

Publishing Info: Harper, February 2018

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book DescriptionA masterful true crime account of the Golden State Killer—the elusive serial rapist turned murderer who terrorized California for over a decade—from Michelle McNamara, the gifted journalist who died tragically while investigating the case.

“You’ll be silent forever, and I’ll be gone in the dark.”

For more than ten years, a mysterious and violent predator committed fifty sexual assaults in Northern California before moving south, where he perpetrated ten sadistic murders. Then he disappeared, eluding capture by multiple police forces and some of the best detectives in the area.

Three decades later, Michelle McNamara, a true crime journalist who created the popular website TrueCrimeDiary.com, was determined to find the violent psychopath she called “the Golden State Killer.” Michelle pored over police reports, interviewed victims, and embedded herself in the online communities that were as obsessed with the case as she was.

At the time of the crimes, the Golden State Killer was between the ages of eighteen and thirty, Caucasian, and athletic—capable of vaulting tall fences. He always wore a mask. After choosing a victim—he favored suburban couples—he often entered their home when no one was there, studying family pictures, mastering the layout. He attacked while they slept, using a flashlight to awaken and blind them. Though they could not recognize him, his victims recalled his voice: a guttural whisper through clenched teeth, abrupt and threatening.

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark—the masterpiece McNamara was writing at the time of her sudden death—offers an atmospheric snapshot of a moment in American history and a chilling account of a criminal mastermind and the wreckage he left behind. It is also a portrait of a woman’s obsession and her unflagging pursuit of the truth. Framed by an introduction by Gillian Flynn and an afterword by her husband, Patton Oswalt, the book was completed by Michelle’s lead researcher and a close colleague. Utterly original and compelling, it is destined to become a true crime classic—and may at last unmask the Golden State Killer.

Review: I woke up on April 25th to a story I never thought, but I had long hoped, to see: there was an arrest in the Golden State Killer case. The Golden State Killer (GSK), aka The East Area Rapist (EARS) or The Original Night Stalker (ONS), was suspected of fifty rapes, a dozen murders, and more than 100 burglaries, all committed in California over the course of a few decades, and it was long thought that he wouldn’t be caught. As a huge true crime fan, I knew this case fairly well, thanks two big factors. The first was the podcast “My Favorite Murder”, and that led to the second: the book “I’ll Be Gone In The Dark” by Michelle McNamara. McNamara was a true crime writer with the blog “True Crime Diary”, and had been doggedly pursuing The Golden State Killer (a phrase she created) at the time of her tragic death in 2016. Earlier this year “I’ll Be Gone In The Dark” was released, in part to Bill Jensen, a co-investigator and investigative journalist in his own right. So when an arrest was made, the news spread like wildfire, and while the police were reluctant to give McNamara any credit outside of raising awareness, many think that that very awareness (starting with her blog and various articles she wrote) was vital to putting pressure on, which in turn led to an arrest. I read “I’ll Be Gone In The Dark” before Joseph DeAngelo, a former police officer and seventy two year old man, was arrested for the crimes. But now that he has been, I want to shine a light on this great book, especially since the story has finally found some closure.

What stands out immediately about this book is how personal it is. While McNamara herself didn’t know anyone who was hurt or killed by GSK/EAR/ONS, an unsolved murder of a childhood neighbor always stuck with her throughout her life. As she started to learn about The Golden State Killer, she began to feel a deep sense of injustice for the victims that he left behind, and started to investigate it herself. She made connections with investigators, she dove into online groups of fellow armchair investigators, she visited locations and dug through box after box of evidence. Her almost obsessive commitment to this case is juxtaposed with the crimes themselves, and the horror that GSK/EAR/ONS brought upon his victims. But she is always sure to be respectful, and to keep the details vague enough to be respectful, but precise enough to paint a picture of just how awful these crimes were. She gives voice and context for the people that GSK/EAR/ONS raped or murdered, and always puts them at the forefront and the fact that justice eluded them and those they left behind for so long. In many true crime books (with a few exceptions, of course, like Ann Rule) the focus is primarily on the murderer, and the victims merely objects in a salacious story. But with McNamara, she wants the reader to know the victims and makes their voices the most important ones. Would this be different had DeAngelo been identified at publishing? Possibly. But I do get the sense that for McNamara, the identity was only important for justice purposes; this wouldn’t have been a story to give him any glory or to make his crimes entertainment.

As you read, McNamara instills actual terror into you. I had to stop reading this book after dark, because any noise and anything out of place sent me into a paranoid spiral. Her writing is that immersive, pulling you in and keeping you engaged. She also makes herself vulnerable by being fully aware and honest with her own obsession, and the toll that it takes on her life and her own mental health. Unlike the book that Robert Graysmith wrote about The Zodiac Killer, McNamara knew that she was treading towards obsession, and that it was deeply affecting her life. The sad fact of the matter is that when Michelle died unexpectedly in her sleep, she could have been seen as, in a way, GSK/EAR/ONS ‘s last victim. She had been having trouble sleeping, and her husband (comedian Patton Oswalt) had suggested she take some Xanax and just sleep until she woke up. And she didn’t wake up, because of an undiagnosed heart condition in tandem to the Xanax and other prescriptions. The tragedy of her death lingers on the page, as there are sections with editor’s notes that explain that they were originally unfinished, or that they were pieced together by her notes or previous articles. It’s so great to see that this book and story she was so dedicated to was finished by people close to her, but the loss is still palpable.

So how does the new information about John DeAngelo affect this book? If anything, it makes it more poignant, and it certainly doesn’t diminish it. I say this because of a specific moment in the epilogue, entitled “A Letter To An Old Man”. It’s a final moment that is essentially a letter from Michelle to GSK/EAR/ONS, and it works as a powerful cap off to a wonderful book. The final paragraph is all the more powerful now. I’m going to quote part of it here to show you what I mean, a quote that’s made the rounds on social media a lot in the days after DeAngelo’s capture.

“The doorbell rings. No side gates are left open. You’re long past leaping over a fence. Take one of your hyper, gulping breaths. Clench your teeth. Inch timidly towards the insistent bell. This is how it ends for you. ‘You’ll be silent forever, and I’ll be gone in the dark,’ you threatened a victim, once. Open the door. Show us your face. Walk into the light.”

And as Patton Oswalt and many others have pointed out, this is exactly what happened on April 25th, 2018.

“I’ll Be Gone in the Dark” is a stunning true crime book and an opus for a voice that left us far too soon. It will surely be considered one of the greats of the genre in the years to come, and Michelle McNamara will be remembered for all the good that she did in her help to bringing closure to the victims of a horrible monster. But it’s also just well written book about confronting darkness in life and in ourselves, and how to battle it as best we can.

Rating 9: A tense and well written true crime opus by a voice gone too soon, “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark” is a tribute to perseverance, and will stand the test of time as not only a true crime classic but as one that probably helped bring justice to the victims of a monster.

Reader’s Advisory:

“I’ll Be Gone In The Dark” is included on the Goodreads lists “My Favorite Murder Books”, and “Best True Crime”.

Find “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Reviews: “Is This Guy For Real?: The Unbelievable Andy Kaufman”

34506909Book: “Is This Guy For Real?: The Unbelievable Andy Kaufman” by Box Brown

Publishing Info: First Second, February 2018

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an ARC from NetGalley.

Book Description: Comedian and performer Andy Kaufman’s resume was impressive—a popular role on the beloved sitcom Taxi, a high-profile stand-up career, and a surprisingly successful stint in professional wrestling. Although he was by all accounts a sensitive and thoughtful person, he’s ironically best remembered for his various contemptible personas, which were so committed and so convincing that all but his closest family and friends were completely taken in.

Why would someone so gentle-natured and sensitive build an entire career seeking the hatred of his audience? What drives a performer to solicit that reaction? With the same nuance and sympathy with which he approached Andre the Giant in his 2014 biography, graphic novelist Box Brown takes on the complex and often hilarious life of Andy Kaufman.

Review: One of my favorite memories of going down to Iowa to visit my grandparents was what my sister and I would do after the rest of the house had gone to bed. We would lie on the pull out couch turned bed, turn on the TV (low so as to not disturb anyone), and watch “Nick at Nite” well into the wee hours of the morning. Sometimes our Mom would watch with us at least for a short while, and I remember the night that I first saw Andy Kaufman. “Taxi” was up next on the schedule, and my Mom was visibly excited for it. When an awkward mechanic came on screen and spoke in a strange and high pitched voice, she said to me “That’s Latke. He’s hilarious.” And he was. As I got older I learned a bit more about Andy Kaufman, his beloved characters as well as his not so beloved characters, and I wasn’t totally sure of what to think of him. I knew I thought he was funny. But I also knew I thought he was nuts. “Is This Guy For Real?” is a graphic biography that examines both aspects of Kaufman, from his childhood years until his untimely death from lung cancer.

Brown is probably most known for his graphic biography about Andre the Giant, and this book is kind of a similar set up: it tries to strip down the affectations and public persona that Kaufman had, and show what drove him. It mainly focuses on his wrestling career, in which he first started wrestling women and then eventually started a ‘feud’ with Jerry Lawler, a popular Tennessee wrestler. Kaufman was VERY MUCH a heel, or a villain character, saying sexist shit about women and playing up the ‘Hollywood Elitist’ persona that really pissed off the wrestling fandom, especially those in Tennessee. To the public he was a complete jerk who harassed and abused people for a laugh. It was kind of a pattern in a way, as one of his characters, Tony Clifton the obnoxious lounge singer, was also excessively cruel. But by all accounts from those he was closest to, this was not who he was in his personal life. I think that Brown does a good job of framing his performance art personality by juxtaposing his love for transcendental meditation and yoga. The other ‘well known’ take on Kaufman’s life is the movie “Man on the Moon”, a Milos Foreman biographical story starring Jim Carrey. “Is This Guy For Real” almost feels a bit more subdued, as it is less about the conflict that Kaufman created with his antics, and more about the drive and creativity behind it. When you see the thought process and the need to entertain and create that was behind it, it puts Kaufman in a new light, and makes his untimely death all the more poignant.

What struck me about this book is that it’s main focus is on Kaufman’s wrestling career, which was controversial in many ways. I actually had no idea that his ‘feud’ with Lawler went on for as long as it did, and that they had been hyping each other up from the beginning and all the way up until Kaufman’s illness. We got to see how Lawler started out as well, and how even though he was a heel himself he and Kaufman crafted a role switch for him. I, too, had no clue that Kaufman was so engrossed in wrestling that it probably could have become a second career for him had he not become ill. It doesn’t focus as much on his time on “Taxi”, nor does it touch on the fact he was banned from SNL, or that he had a very public meltdown on the show “Fridays” (the veracity of this meltdown is disputed, however: some say that it was all planned). This book definitely takes the position that while a lot of people, Lawler included, didn’t really ‘get’ Kaufman’s motivations and performances, or his need to perform in such a way, he was ultimately far more self aware and grounded than his reputation would imply, and his relationship with Lawler is evidence of this. I don’t know how I feel about Brown leaving that more controversial stuff out, though. It felt a little dishonest to omit these abrasive and unpleasant facts about him.

I do have to wonder, though, how much of that is actually the case. In the last few pages of this book Brown refers to a conversation he had with Michael Kaufman, Andy’s brother, in which Michael says that he didn’t like “Man on the Moon” because it portrayed Andy as a self centered buffoon who was lost in his own performances, and he didn’t agree with that. I do concede that that film, as much as I like it, definitely had to pull out a narrative of conflict, and that’s a popular angle to take when talking about Kaufman. But Bob Zmuda, Kaufman’s comedic partner and close friend, had a HUGE hand in that movie. It kind of hits home that perhaps neither Zmuda NOR Michael really had a grasp on who Kaufman was at his heart. There was also one little ‘fun fact’ that I had a problem with, and it’s only because I have deep feelings about it. Brown says that none of Kaufman’s “Taxi” co-stars were at his funeral, and that’s not true. While most of them didn’t go, thinking he was playing a cruel joke on them, Carol Kane did attend. She played opposite Kaufman on the show, and by all accounts they got along very well. So to erase her from his life like that, even if it was just a side note to make a point about how misunderstood he was, felt wrong.

The artwork is pretty cool too! While Brown’s style is kind of simplistic in some ways, I think that it’s very unique, and just kind of adds to the whimsy that is already abundant.

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(source)

All in all, “Is This Guy For Real?” was an enjoyable graphic biography about an entertainer that I really love. I feel like I learned more about him, and that perhaps I understand him a little bit better. Maybe. Because who knows with Andy Kaufman?

Rating 8: A poignant and well told biography about one of the strangest comedians of the 20th Century. While it left out some of his more notorious moments, it reveals a side that tends to get lost.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Is This Guy For Real?” is still new and not on any Goodreads lists yet, but I think it would fit in on “Non-Fiction Comics and Graphic Novels”, and “Best Eccentric Characters”.

Find “Is This Guy For Real?” at your library using WorldCat!

 

Kate’s Review: “The Disaster Artist”

17404078Book: “The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside “The Room”, The Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made” by Greg Sestero, Tom Bissell

Publishing Info: Simon & Schuster, October 2013

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it on audiobook!

Book Description: From the actor who lived through the most improbable Hollywood success story, with an award-winning narrative nonfiction writer, comes the inspiring, fascinating and laugh-out-loud story of a mysteriously wealthy outsider who sundered every road block in the Hollywood system to achieve success on his own terms—the making of The Room, “the Citizen Kane of bad movies” (Entertainment Weekly).

In 2003, an independent film called The Room—written, produced, directed, and starring a very rich social misfit of indeterminate age and origin named Tommy Wiseau—made its disastrous debut in Los Angeles. Described by one reviewer as “like getting stabbed in the head,” the $6 million film earned a grand total of $1,800 at the box office and closed after two weeks. Now in its tenth anniversary year, The Room is an international phenomenon to rival The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Thousands of fans wait in line for hours to attend screenings complete with costumes, audience rituals, merchandising, and thousands of plastic spoons.

Readers need not have seen The Room to appreciate its costar Greg Sestero’s account of how Tommy Wiseau defied every law of artistry, business, and interpersonal relationships to achieve the dream only he could love. While it does unravel mysteries for fans, The Disaster Artist is more than just an hilarious story about cinematic hubris: It is ultimately a surprisingly inspiring tour de force that reads like a page-turning novel, an open-hearted portrait of a supremely enigmatic man who will capture your heart.

Review: As a bad movie connoisseur, it will probably come as a huge surprise to people that I have not actually seen “The Room” in it’s entirety. My first experience with “The Room” was while at a midnight showing of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show”, as they were advertising a special screening of this piece of cinematic napalm. I’ve seen plenty of clips online. I’ve seen lots of references to it, gifs, parodies. And I had heard of the book “The Disaster Artist”, written by Greg Sestero. Sestero was one of the stars in the movie, and decided to write a memoir about the making of it, as well of his friendship with Tommy Wiseau, the man behind the film. With the new movie out based on this book, I felt that before I saw it, I needed to read the original memoir to get the full effect. So I got my hands on the audiobook, read by Sestero himself.

And it was more surreal than I ever could have imagined in the history of surrealness.

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No, Mark, that’s a compliment!! (source)

Okay, for the super uninitiated, “The Room” is a nonsensical, poorly written, poorly directed, poorly acted vanity project written, directed by, and starring Tommy Wiseau. I would say go watch it, but… HERE, see some scenes for yourself. Greg Sestero, who plays Mark in the movie, had known Wiseau for some time before he was emotionally manipulated asked to appear in the film by him. The memoir he’s written takes two different timelines and juxtaposes them into the narrative: the actual making of “The Room”, and his strange friendship with Wiseau, from it’s inception in an acting class to the moment Wiseau decided he was going to make his own movie after success eluded him. I had heard plenty of stories about the bizarre antics of Tommy Wiseau on and off the set, but none of prepared me for the ‘what the FUCK’-ness that was this memoir. I walked away from it thinking that either Sestero has the patience of a saint, or has found himself totally within the clutches of an incredibly toxic friendship and doesn’t know up from down anymore. I really hope it’s the former.

So many of the stories in this book read like they should be fiction, and yet I have no doubt in my mind that they absolutely occurred the way that Sestero said they did. They are just too outlandish and random to have not. Be it a moment where Wiseau reads a key code to Sestero telling him it’s very complicated, only for it to be ‘1234’ (and written down because Wiseau ‘can never remember it’), to descriptions of Sestero coming home to find Wiseau hanging upside down from a pull up bar and just kind of lingering in stasis, to Wiseau telling Sestero to meet him in downtown San Francisco, only to surprise him by saying they are running The Bay to Breakers Race THAT VERY MOMENT (poor Sestero was only wearing sandals), the anecdotes are stranger than fiction. And laugh out loud funny. I had it on my phone as I was setting up for work one morning, and one of my coworkers needed to know why I was laughing so hard. And, of course, the descriptions of the antics on the set itself were mind boggling in their hilarity. Wiseau would take hours upon hours to get a seven second line correct; he would perform his suicide scene, and then writhe around and moan in spite of the fact his character had just eaten a gun; he would insist upon green screens for simple shots that end up looking out of place at best, ridiculous at worst. And he had a knack for getting the absolute worst performances from his players. In the moment it had to be absolutely maddening; but Sestero tells it in such a way that the humor is always there, and it is entertaining as hell.

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What a story indeed. (source)

But along with that, Sestero does a great job of capturing the darker and more poignant sides to Wiseau and their complicated friendship. Behind the oddities and eccentricities, there is definitely a dark side to Tommy, one that is hard to completely understand, if only because he is so private with his past and his personal life. He is desperate for friends, he is desperate to be loved and admired, and he latches onto Sestero out of what appears to be sheer loneliness. Unfortunately, like most of the time, this makes for a very tempestuous, and unhealthy, friendship. Wiseau could switch from being supportive and whimsical, to threatening and abusive should he think that Sestero, or anyone, was crossing him. Hell, “The Room” itself seems to be a reflection of how Wiseau sees himself in the world, as the one truly pure person who is taken advantage of by the people he loves. Wiseau insisted that Sestero play Mark, the best friend of Johnny (played by Wiseau), who betrays Johnny by having an affair with Lisa, Johnny’s fiancee. When you look at that in the context of a deep resentment that Wiseau potentially had for Sestero due to his perceived ‘success’ in Hollywood pre-“The Room” (booking a few roles here and there is success in this case), the casting makes perfect sense. There were moments where I felt deeply uncomfortable about the toxic nature of their friendship, as in some ways it hit a nerve. I’ve been in Sestero’s shoes before, as I’ve been in the position of having a friend who is so completely draining and yet you don’t know how to extricate yourself from them. One review I read thought that Sestero either had to be lying, or downplaying his own ‘leech’ status to Tommy (who provided him with an apartment at a reduced rate), because how could he continue to put up with the abusive nature of their friendship for so long if there wasn’t something in it for him? To that reviewer, I say that it is far more realistic than one would think. To Sestero’s credit, this could have been a complete hatchet job towards an unstable and narcissistic asshole. But instead, by giving some insight into what sort of (potential) experiences Wiseau went through in his early life, he writes of him in such a way that while you are repelled by some of his actions, you also understand why he acts in certain ways. I don’t feel that Sestero ever makes excuses for it, either, as he is VERY clear when Wiseau goes over the line against him and others. But he’s made peace with this relationship, and shows the good with the bad.

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Patience. Of. A. Saint. (source)

As mentioned previously, I listened to this book, and Sestero reads it himself. I HIGHLY recommend it. At first he sounded a little bit wooden and I wasn’t totally sure… but the moment that he started imitating Wiseau, well, that sold it for me. It’s pretty much the perfect imitation as only a friend can do.

“The Disaster Artist” was easily one of the most bizarre and entertaining books that I’ve read. It says a lot about the need for acceptance, the desperation for fame, and how sometimes being just off the wall wacko can pay off, even if it’s in ways you never intended.

Rating 10: A hilarious, outlandish, and at times incredibly pathos ridden and disturbing romp about dreaming of stardom, acceptance, and success… no matter how you define it or achieve it.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Disaster Artist” is included on the Goodreads lists “Books ABOUT Movies”, and “Best Eccentric Characters”.

Find “The Disaster Artist” at your library using WorldCat! And here is the link to the Audiobook version because TRUST ME.

Book Club Review: “Word By Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries”

30781490We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing bookclub running for the last several years. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is a “Dewey Call Number” theme. This book comes from a Dewey Decimal Call Number range, and has to fit the theme of that range.

For this blog, we will post a joint review of each book we read for bookclub. We’ll also post the next book coming up in bookclub. So feel free to read along with us or use our book selections and questions in your own bookclub!

Book: “Word By Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries” by Kory Stamper

Publishing Info: Pantheon Books, March 2017

Where Did We Get This Book: The library!

Dewey Decimal Call Number: 400s (Language)

Book Description: Do you have strong feelings about the word “irregardless”? Have you ever tried to define the word “is”? This account of how dictionaries are made is for you word mavens. 

Many of us take dictionaries for granted, and few may realize that the process of writing dictionaries is, in fact, as lively and dynamic as language itself. With sharp wit and irreverence, Kory Stamper cracks open the complex, obsessive world of lexicography, from the agonizing decisions about what to define and how to do it, to the knotty questions of usage in an ever-changing language. She explains why small words are the most difficult to define, how it can take nine months to define a single word, and how our biases about language and pronunciation can have tremendous social influence. And along the way, she reveals little-known surprises–for example, the fact that “OMG” was first used in a letter to Winston Churchill in 1917.

Word by Word brings to life the hallowed halls (and highly idiosyncratic cubicles) of Merriam-Webster, a startlingly rich world inhabited by quirky and erudite individuals who quietly shape the way we communicate.

Kate’s Thoughts

So it will surprise no one here that I love to read. What may surprise people is that even though I love reading and the words that ultimately come with it, I don’t have much interest in the history or said words. When this was picked for book club, I will totally own up to the fact that I basically groaned internally. I have a hard enough time with non fiction as it is (unless it’s narrative, memoir, or true crime), so I worried that this would be a terribly boring slog to get through. The good news is that I wasn’t totally correct in this. The bad news is, like the scorpion in that old folktale, it’s in my nature to have a hard time with this kind of book no matter how engaging it is.

But I’m going to focus mostly on the good since the bad isn’t any fault of Stamper’s. “Word By Word” was a well done, and at times quite funny, overview of what it’s like to work at Merriam-Webster, and the intricacies that go into adding words to and defining words for a dictionary. I guess that until I read this book it never occurred to me that there would be questions and consistently changing definitions to words, or that sometimes it can take months to settle on a most representative definition. Stamper not only talks about what it’s like to work at Merriam-Webster in this capacity, she also talks about how people like her have to take so many different variables into account just to function in the best way possible. For some, some of the most interesting concepts were focused on how society perceives dictionaries, and how they actually are supposed to function. Within this was the authority myth, in that if a word is defined one way in the dictionary, this is the bottom line because the dictionary said so. Stamper points out that this just isn’t the case; dictionaries are not supposed to be authorities on definitions, they are merely there to record and relay these definitions. Language is always changing, and therefore the meanings of words are changing too.

My reservations and hesitations about this book (aka why it was a slog) was going back to my nature: I am very picky about my non fiction. I merely want to reiterate that for my ultimate rating, because it was based on form, not substance. This book also gave our book club a LOT to talk about, which was really, really excellent. So while “Word By Word” wasn’t really my cup of tea, I can see it being very appealing to a lot of people who aren’t me.

Serena’s Thoughts

As evidenced by the content of this blog, neither Kate or I are big nonfiction readers. If anything, Kate is more of a nonfiction reader than I am, and as seen in her thoughts above, she’s still not that into it. At least she has true crime to back her up as not completely stuck in the “fiction only” section that I am. I don’t think I’ve reviewed a single nonficton book on this blog. I don’t say this out of pride or anything. I really wish I liked nonfiction more than I do. There are a few exceptions to this, but usually it’s when books are thrust upon me my trusted friends and family. So, while I would never have picked up this book on my own, I’m so glad that our fellow bookclub librarian, Katie, recommended it! I found myself very much enjoying it, and while it isn’t changing my mind on nonfiction as a whole, that’s too big of an ask for any book.

I’ll also confess that I didn’t read this book in the traditional front-to-back method, and I really think this is one of the reasons I enjoyed it more than I would have otherwise. Instead, I picked a chapter here and a chapter there, skipping forward and backward through the book based on my interests. For example, I started with the “irregardless” chapter, because, yes, that word and all the controversy around it does intrigue me! From there, I found myself in a chapter document acronyms and how rarely the much bandied explanations for words’ origins having to do with acronyms is true. We’ve all probably heard of some acronym for the “f” word, for example. The author does an excellent job exploring why acronyms are so rarely involved with a word’s definition.

As I read, I mostly found myself gather ammo for word-related conversations. As a librarian and book lover, these are the exact sorts of disagreements and discussions that I regularly find myself in, and I loved getting some more detailed background knowledge on my side going forward. As Kate said, for this reason, I’m sure, our bookclub probably had more to say with regards to this book than we’ve had for many other books recently. In this way, this book is an excellent choice for other bookclubs out there. Especially for those that have members who may not be totally bought into nonfiction. I recommend my reading strategy, specifically, for those folks. I think I had an easier time than Kate just because of this. By hopping around, picking it up to read a chapter here and a chapter there, I never had to confront the general dismay about the long slog ahead that results from starting in the beginning, especially starting with a non-enthralled position.

I also really think that had I not found my calling as a librarian that working on a dictionary like this like may have been another dream job. I had an assignment in a publishing class back in undergrad to create an index for a book, and similar to that, dictionary work seems appealing nit-picky and focused on organization. I also would have had a lot of fun writing snarky answers to the people who wrote in with complaints about the inclusion of the word “irregardless” in the dictionary. Really, could I just have that job? Answering dictionary-related complaint mail?

Kate’s Rating 6: An enlightening examination of how dictionaries are compiled and the role they play, as well as fascinating questions raised about language in modern society. It was a bit of a dry read for me at times, but overall a worthwhile one.

Serena’s Rating 8: I was shocked by how much I enjoyed this! There was a lot of history of words and details of dictionary work that I didn’t know, and by reading it one chapter at a time I was able to hold off my own non-fiction antipathy.

Book Club Questions

  1. Were you surprised about anything about this job? Would you want it?
  2. Grammar snobs: heroes or obnoxious?
  3. What do you think about the social justice implications of language/dialects?
  4. Does the history of words, or etymology, interest you? Why or why not?
  5. What words do you hope get added to future dictionaries?

Reader’s Advisory

“Word For Word: The Secret History of Dictionaries” is on the Goodreads lists “Microhistory: Social Histories of Just One Thing”, and “Best Non-Fiction Books About Books and Reading”.

Find “Word For Word: The Secret History of Dictionaries” at your library using WorldCat!

 

Kate’s Review: “The Best We Could Do”

29936927Book: “The Best We Could Do” by Thi Bui

Publishing Info: Abrams Books, March 2017

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: This beautifully illustrated and emotional story is an evocative memoir about the search for a better future and a longing for the past. Exploring the anguish of immigration and the lasting effects that displacement has on a child and her family, Bui documents the story of her family’s daring escape after the fall of South Vietnam in the 1970s, and the difficulties they faced building new lives for themselves.
 
At the heart of Bui’s story is a universal struggle: While adjusting to life as a first-time mother, she ultimately discovers what it means to be a parent—the endless sacrifices, the unnoticed gestures, and the depths of unspoken love. Despite how impossible it seems to take on the simultaneous roles of both parent and child, Bui pushes through. With haunting, poetic writing and breathtaking art, she examines the strength of family, the importance of identity, and the meaning of home.
 
In what Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen calls “a book to break your heart and heal it,” The Best We Could Do brings to life Thi Bui’s journey of understanding, and provides inspiration to all of those who search for a better future while longing for a simpler past.

Review: Stories of refugees and immigration are incredibly relevant these days. Between certain world leaders trying to impose travel bans, to the threats of building a wall all along a border, to the devastating refugee crisis being seen due to instability in Syria, the very thought of people finding a safe place to live, while leaving their home behind, has become incredibly politicized. When I first heard about “The Best We Could Do”, I knew that I needed to immediately get it on my request list so that I could read it as soon as it was available to me. It’s heartening to see that graphic novels are becoming more and more used to tell personal stories, and a story as personal as this one was only bolstered by the imagery that we found on the page. Oh boy was this a wonderful book.

And a very sad book as well. Thi Bui was born in Vietnam, just around the time that the Vietnam War was starting to wind down. Her family history is intwined within the stark differences in the Vietnamese society up to and during the war, as her mother was from the bourgeois class and her father was decidedly less well off. But this story isn’t just about a family trying to escape a violent and unsafe situation; it is also about a family that is forever affected by society around it, and a family trying to fit in in a new place that is completely new and different to them. By giving the context of her mother’s background, her father’s background, and the culture and society of Vietnam during their childhoods and her childhood as well, we get a story that is tragic, hopeful, devastating, and important all at once. She also does a very good job of showing how Western Imperialism and Colonialism, of course, had a large effect on how Vietnam dealt with a cultural conflict of the North versus the South. I really appreciated that she pointed out that for people in America during the war (those fighting it aside), it was more of a concept and something to support or speak out against. But for the Vietnamese, it was the life they were living every day, and that somehow kind of got lost in the narrative.

I also really liked the stories of her family, as imperfect and in some ways dysfunctional as it was. She has a very conflicted opinion of both her parents. Her father wasn’t a very good parent to her, and he wasn’t a very good husband to her mother either. But seeing his childhood that was filled with turmoil, poverty, instability, and broken family ties, we can completely understand why he turned into the man he became. We also see that her mother was in many ways a remarkable person who had ambitions and dreams, but then found herself in a marriage she wasn’t completely invested in, and with a family that, as cherished as they were, put an end to her ambitions, ambitions that absolutely could have been backed up by talent and know how. Bui contrasts her own journey into motherhood against the story of her own mother, and it is incredibly effective and bittersweet.

I think that what I found most effective about this story is that it has a powerful message, but it is wrapped in a family memoir. I was expecting far more about the fall of South Vietnam, and the journey out under cloak of darkness. But while that certainly does play a part, it’s really a story about a family, and how having to move from one life to another, whole new life in a whole new place caused damage that never quite repaired. Trauma, war, and displacement isn’t something that is forgotten just because you move to a new place and start a new life, and sometimes adapting to that new life can be a challenge in and of itself.

The art in this book is absolutely gorgeous. It is fairly simple at first glance, but images pop out and really take the reader’s gaze into them. I loved the colors and I loved how detailed it was, even though it looks like it’s fairly straight forward.

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(source)

I really cannot recommend “The Best We Could Do” enough. In a time where I think empathy and understanding are sorely needed when it comes to trying to understand the refugee experience, Thi Bui’s memoir will engage readers and show them how much is lost and how much is sacrificed just to stay alive. This is an incredibly important book.

Rating 9: A personal and powerful memoir with gorgeous illustrations, “The Best We Could Do” is an important book with a relevant message to the issues of immigration and the refugee crisis we are seeing today.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Best We Could Do” is included on the following Goodreads lists: “Required Reading: Graphic Novels”, and “Vietnamese-American Novels and Memoirs”.

Find “The Best We Could Do” at your library using WorldCat!