Thursday, August 15, 2019

Book Review: Hope Rides Again: An Obama Biden Mystery, by Andrew Shaffer (2019)

The cover of Hope Rides Again, by Andrew Shaffer, 2019.

Author Andrew Shaffer
Andrew Shaffer’s 2018 novel Hope Never Dies imagined Barack Obama and Joe Biden teaming up to a solve a murder. In the 2019 sequel, Hope Rides Again, Obama and Biden once again combine forces to solve a crime. While the first book took place in Biden’s home state of Delaware, Hope Rides Again is set on Obama’s turfChicago. 

Hope Rides Again simply isn’t as funny as its predecessor. All the jokes about Biden being old, clueless and out of touch just aren’t as funny now that he’s on the campaign trail and has seemed, well, old, clueless and out of touch. 

While I was happy that Hope Never Dies took a (relatively) realistic view of the plot, as opposed to just being completely over the top, I found myself wanting Hope Rides Again to be more over the top. The idea is a ridiculous one to begin with, so why not just make it completely bonkers? Although Hope Rides Again does get points by allowing Biden to get behind the wheel of a Pontiac Firebird Trans Am. (Minus points for making Obama ride in the back seat, because too many people would recognize him.) 

There’s a lot of earnest speechifying in Hope Rides Again. Take this example by Obama:

“It’s time to go. It’s been a long day for all of us. And to be fair to Pastor Brown, you and I don’t know Chicago like he does. I’ve been gone a long time. Neighborhoods change; people change. Some things, however, remain the same. This is a dangerous town. It’s gotten better, but it’s no Mayberry. Even if we solve this case, it won’t stem the flow of guns into the city. It’ll ease our minds, but not a damn thing more.” (p.184) 

Sure, that sounds reasonably like something Barack Obama would say, but there are just too many times in the novel when characters enter that kind of didactic mode. The plot, centering as it does around a young African American male getting shot in Chicago, is pretty depressing. 

There are still some laughs to be found in Hope Rides Again, but I just didn’t enjoy it as much as Hope Never Dies.

Friday, August 9, 2019

Book Review: I Am Charlotte Simmons, by Tom Wolfe (2004)

Paperback cover of I Am Charlotte Simmons, by Tom Wolfe, 2004. (Photo by Mark C. Taylor)

Author photo of Tom Wolfe taken for I Am Charlotte Simmons.
Dude, didja see her? Bra, check her out! She’s smokin’ hot, man! WAZZZZUPPPP, my bros! As the sounds of inane conversation filter above the bass thumping and pounding, you notice him. He looks, well, old. Arteriosclerotic. A fossil, for sure. Why is he here? He must be a narc. One of the deans, maybe? And what’s he wearing? A suit? Who wears a suit when you’re trying to be a narc? Not only that, it’s a white suit. Didn’t he get the memo, the black light party was LAST weekend. Huh. Definitely some kind of narc. He’s not trying to fit in and dance to the music the way the other narcs do, using dated college slang from the 1980’s. He’s not trying to mack on the hotties, either. He seems impervious to their loamy loins, although he might be too old to noticehe’s not in the season of the rising sap anymore! He’s just standing there, holding a hulking green notebook in his hands, scribbling down something. It’s so dark in here, how can he even see what he’s writing down? Super weird. 

In Tom Wolfe’s third novel, 2004’s I Am Charlotte Simmons, Wolfe presents the reader with a very detailed picture of Charlotte Simmons’ first semester at the fictional Dupont University. Dupont is a well-regarded academic institution that also wins national championships in basketball. Wolfe said of Dupont that it was based on “Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, Duke, and a few other places all rolled into one.” (Quoted in the Yale Alumni magazine.)

Charlotte Simmons is a brilliant young woman who graduated valedictorian from Sparta High School in Sparta, North Carolina, a small town in the northwest corner of the state. Charlotte has her sights set on getting out of Sparta, and she gets a scholarship to attend Dupont, the college of her dreams. 

But Charlotte has a rude awakening in store for her when she gets to Dupont. Charlotte is disappointed to discover that a lot of the focus at Dupont is on frat parties and drinking, and not so much on “the life of the mind,” as she had hoped. Her roommate, Beverly, is a shallow rich girl who is only concerned with Charlotte when she needs the dorm room for a tryst. 

I Am Charlotte Simmons also follows “Jojo” Johanssen, the only white starting player on the Dupont basketball team. Through Johanssen’s story arc, Wolfe offers a sharp critique of college athletic programs that treat their players as prized ponies, giving them preferential treatment at every turn, and keeping them isolated from the rest of the undergraduates. Through an encounter with Charlotte, Jojo suddenly, and perhaps somewhat improbably, seeks to take more challenging classes, much to the chagrin of his basketball coach. 

Jojo has an academic tutor to help him pass his classes, Adam Gellin. Adam is a smart, hard-working student who also delivers pizzas in his spare time. Adam meets Charlotte, and in addition to being struck by her beauty, he finds someone who is also searching for something more from the college experience than a round of parties. 

Another major character is the douchebag frat boy Hoyt Thorpe. Like all the other males in the novel, Hoyt encounters Charlotte and finds her very beautiful. As a senior, Hoyt has anxiety about his future, as his academic transcript is less than stellar. 

One of the most outstanding parts of the book is the novella-length section that recounts Charlotte’s overnight trip as Hoyt’s date to his fraternity formal in Washington, DC. The whole trip is a disaster from the beginning, as Charlotte suffers through an awkward car ride with juniors and seniors that she doesn’t know. The other girls mock Charlotte’s Southern accent, and she feels very isolated. When the group checks into the hotel, Charlotte is surprised that she doesn’t have her own hotel room, and instead will have to share a room with Hoyt and another couple. Charlotte gets very drunk during the formal, and as night turns into morning, Hoyt has sex with her. Charlotte is a virgin and bleeds on the bedsheets, disgusting Hoyt. Charlotte is impaired from her drinking, and her consent is hazy at best. Throughout these painful chapters, you’re hoping that somehow Charlotte will extricate herself from this awful situation and that the evening won’t turn out the way you fear it will. When Charlotte returns to campus, the story of her losing her virginity quickly makes the rounds of Dupont, and she finds herself socially ostracized. 

Michiko Kakutani called the novel’s sex scenes “gross” and “leering” in her New York Times review, but it’s clear the scene is supposed to be extremely uncomfortable. There’s nothing erotic or sexy about it. When Wolfe was interviewed on NPR about the sex scenes, he said, “I wanted these scenes to be as impersonal as, in fact, they are.” 

On a lighter note, there are several in jokes in I Am Charlotte Simmons for Tom Wolfe fans to enjoy. Hoyt Thorpe is pursued by the bond firm Pierce & Pierce, which is the company that Sherman McCoy worked for in The Bonfire of the Vanities. The law firm of Dunning, Sponget, and Leach, first introduced in Bonfire, makes an appearance towards the end of the novel. Streptolon, Wolfe’s favorite fictional synthetic material, first introduced in his writing in the late 1960’s and name-checked in nearly all of his books, appears here as warm-up pants and the webbing for a deck chair. As usual, people are packed “shank to flank,” numerous young women have “loamy loins,” and many young men are going through “the season of the rising sap.” Wolfe also briefly references one of his favorite novels, James T. Farrell’s Studs Lonigan, a masterpiece of the kind of detailed, naturalistic fiction that Wolfe favored. 

Wolfe nails the details of his characters, from Charlotte’s occasional upspeak, to Adam’s desire to show off his knowledge, to Jojo’s insecurity when a hotshot African American player threatens his role as a starter. Wolfe was a master of the neuroses of the male psyche, as he saw with sharp clarity how males present themselves in society in order to establish their places in the status hierarchy. 

Wolfe gives all his characters vivid, detailed backstories, showing us how they have journeyed to this point in their lives, and how things like class, status, and money have formed them. Wolfe’s attention to details helps him create a vibrant picture of college life at the turn of the millennium. 

I Am Charlotte Simmons was savaged by reviewers when it was released in the fall of 2004. Many critics complained about Wolfe trying to create credible characters that were fifty years younger than he was. However, as someone who went to college during the time that Wolfe was writing the novel, I found it to be a very accurate depiction of college life, even though the college I attended was very different from Dupont University. I think it’s a major achievement of Wolfe’s that he was able to create vibrant characters that were fifty years younger than he was. If you want to know what college was like in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, read I Am Charlotte Simmons.

Monday, August 5, 2019

Book Review: Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion (1968)

Cover of the 2008 paperback reissue of Slouching Towards Bethlehem, by Joan Didion, 1968.

People either love Joan Didion or they can’t stand her. She inspires passionate fandom and vituperative criticism. She’s a writer who’s been on my radar for a long time, and with my interest in Tom Wolfe and New Journalism, I figured it was finally time for me to start reading some of her work.

Slouching Towards Bethlehem was Didion’s first collection of non-fiction. Published in 1968, it’s become one of the seminal collections of New Journalism. The book is separated into three sections: “Life Styles in the Golden Land,” “Personals,” and “Seven Places of the Mind.” I found the first section the most interesting, because it features the most actual reporting from Didion.

The first essay, “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream” tells the complicated and bizarre story of Lucille Miller, a housewife who was convicted of murdering her husband by setting their Volkswagen Beetle on fire—with her husband still inside of it. It seems like a fairly complicated way to try to murder someone, and the story gets more twisted, as Lucille was having an affair with a married man, whose wife had recently died under, ahem, mysterious circumstances. Adding another layer to the case, Lucille’s husband was a depressed, suicidal dentist. The essay is a fascinating piece that is highly evocative of the landscape of the California desert.

“John Wayne: A Love Song” is an interesting essay, written from the set of the 1965 movie The Sons of Katie Elder, Wayne’s first movie after battling lung cancer. Didion writes of the Duke: “When John Wayne spoke, there was no mistaking his intentions; he had a sexual authority so strong that even a child could perceive it.” (p.30) Of course, John Wayne always spoke with authority, but it had never crossed my mind that his authority carried a sexual overtone. I suppose Wayne’s heterosexuality was just so obviously worn on his sleeve—he was the ultimate on screen embodiment of masculinity for several generations.

I found the strongest piece in the book to be the title essay, a look at the hippies of San Francisco during the beginning of the summer of 1967, the so-called “Summer of Love.” The essay is an interesting companion to Tom Wolfe’s 1968 book The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, his study of Ken Kesey and the whole wild scene happening around him and his followers in San Francisco.

A man named Steve has a fantastic insight in “Slouching Towards Bethlehem.” He tells Didion, “There’ve been times I felt like packing up and taking off for the East Coast again, at least there I had a target. At least there you expect that it’s going to happen. Here you know it’s not going to.” Didion then asks Steve what it is that’s supposed to happen. He replies, “I don’t know. Something. Anything.” (p.98) Steve’s observation is strikingly similar to the conclusion of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, in which the Merry Pranksters chant “We blew it!” over and over again. The quest has failed, and all of these grand hippie experiments have not produced the desired revolution in human relationships that they sought.

There’s also a short piece on Las Vegas weddings, featuring Didion’s observation: “Almost everyone notes that there is no ‘time’ in Las Vegas, no night and no day and no past and no future…neither is there any logical sense of where one is.” (p.80) That still rings true for Las Vegas today.

Section I also features an interesting essay examining society’s fascination with Howard Hughes, and the myriad stories and rumors he engendered. There’s also a piece about the Institute for the Study of Nonviolence, a school started by the folksinger and activist Joan Baez.

The more personal pieces in Section II were less interesting to me. Some of them are simply too short to go into their topics in detail. I’m really not that interested in reading Joan Didion’s thoughts “On Morality” in 1,000 words. The setting and introduction of “On Morality” is more interesting than any conclusions Didion ultimately comes to in the essay:

“As it happens I am in Death Valley, in a room at the Enterprise Motel and Trailer Park, and it is July, and it is hot. In fact it is 119 degrees. I cannot seem to make the air conditioner work, but there is a small refrigerator, and I can wrap ice cubes in a towel and hold them against the small of my back.” (p.157)

I found that scene setting of more interest than Didion’s declaration later in the essay: “You see I want to be quite obstinate about insisting that we have no way of knowing—beyond that fundamental loyalty to the social code—what is ‘right’ and what is ‘wrong,’ what is ‘good’ and what ‘evil.’” (p.162)

Didion’s 1964 essay on the movies, “I Can’t Get That Monster Out of My Mind” was a frustrating read for me. Didion is dismissive of John Frankenheimer’s 1964 Cold War thriller Seven Days in May. The plot of Seven Days in May hinges upon a right-wing general (Burt Lancaster) attempting to stage a military coup to take over the United States government from a liberal President (Frederic March) who has signed a nuclear disarmament treaty with the Soviet Union. Didion writes that Seven Days in May “appeared to be a fantasy in the most clinical sense of that word.” (p.153) John F. Kennedy, President at the time Seven Days in May was made, didn’t find it to be a fantasy. Kennedy had earned the ire of the more right-wing military commanders due to his refusal to use the full force of the U.S. military during the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis. In 1963, Kennedy was also extending something of an olive branch to the Soviet Union, calling for a nuclear test ban treaty in his speech at American University on June 10, 1963.

When JFK’s friend Red Fay asked Kennedy if he thought the events depicted in the novel Seven Days in May could ever actually happen in the United States, Kennedy had an interesting response.

“It’s possible. But the conditions would have to be just right. If the country had a young President, and he had a Bay of Pigs, there would be a certain uneasiness. Maybe the military would do a little criticizing behind his back. Then if there were another Bay of Pigs, the reaction of the country would be, ‘Is he too young and inexperienced?’ The military would almost feel that it was their patriotic obligation to stand ready to preserve the integrity of the nation and only God knows just what segment of Democracy they would be defending if they overthrew the elected establishment. Then, if there were a third Bay of Pigs it could happen. It won’t happen on my watch.” (The Pleasure of His Company, by Red Fay)

Didion is also dismissive of another Cold War classic from 1964: “Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, which did have a little style, was scarcely a picture of relentless originality; rarely have we seen so much made over so little.” (p.154-5) Regardless of whether you like Dr. Strangelove, I think most people would have to admit that it’s original. It’s a comedy about nuclear war and the end of the world, hardly a topic that was often addressed in the movies. Didion doesn’t even mention the brilliance of Peter Sellers playing three roles: Group Captain Mandrake, President Merkin Muffley, and of course, the titular German scientist.

The essays in Section III are a bit of a mix of the first two sections: personal essays combined with reporting. They cover a variety of subjects: Sacramento, Pearl Harbor, Alcatraz—just after it had closed as a prison and before it became a tourist attraction—the mansions of Newport, Rhode Island, and making it through your twenties. 

My favorite line in “Goodbye to All That,” Didion’s essay about her life in her twenties is this: “One of the mixed blessings of being twenty and twenty-one and even twenty-three is the conviction that nothing like this, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, has ever happened to anyone before.” (p.226) That’s a brilliant summary of the intense self-absorption most of us go through during our early twenties. 

I enjoyed Slouching Towards Bethlehem, and Didion is an excellent writer. I suspect part of the dividing line about her writing is the degree to which she intrudes as an author into the narrative. You might think Didion intrudes unnecessarily into the narrative, or you might find it really interesting to read about her own thoughts and feelings. I go back and forth with it, sometimes it’s fine, and sometimes I found it frustrating and distracting. Didion consistently uses first person in her essays and reporting, whereas Tom Wolfe was loath to insert himself into his own reporting, even going so far as to invent euphemisms to refer to himself in his own writing without resorting to using first person. Wolfe wrote: 

“Sometimes I would put myself into the story and make sport of me. I would be ‘the man in the brown Borsalino hat,’ a large fuzzy Italian fedora I wore at the time, or ‘the man in the Big Lunch tie.’ I would write about myself in the third person, usually as a puzzled onlooker or someone who was in the way, which was often the case…anything to avoid coming on like the usual non-fiction narrator, with a hush in my voice, like a radio announcer at a tennis match.” (The New Journalism, by Tom Wolfe, p.17)

Of course, there’s nothing about Didion’s writing that is reminiscent of an announcer at a tennis match. She’s more like a friend whispering witty asides to you as you both watch the action transpiring.