Wednesday, June 21, 2017

The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test

            I can now confirm the existence of extraterrestrial life forms because Tom Wolfe is certainly an alien. The man is all over the map with his skill-sets. A while back, I read and reviewed The Bonfire of the Vanities, Wolfe’s first novel, published in 1987. It is a well-written, provocative piece, but it’s also pretty “normal” in the sense that it doesn’t push the envelope stylistically. Interestingly, Wolfe is credited for creating and popularizing the “push the envelope” phrase in his book The Right Stuff.  Just remember…
            On the other hand, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test* tears up the envelope and throws the pieces up like covfefe. As it belongs to the nonfiction genre, Wolfe describes the rollercoaster life of esteemed author Ken Kesey and his close, cultish circle—the Merry Pranksters. The book retells actual events, following the physical, spiritual, and legal trajectory of Kesey, from when he first became interested in LSD as a mind-expanding drug while writing One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest to when he introduced “acid-tests” across the country, designed to break down mental barriers and achieve ultimate intersubjectivity. Wolfe’s chronicles include the Prankster’s run-ins with famous authors (like Kerouac), Hells Angels, and the Grateful Dead.

            Clearly, this is a unique subject matter, and Wolfe rises to the occasion. The eccentricity of Kesey and his pranksters requires an eccentric voice to match. So, Wolfe incorporates unconventional literary devices that jazz up otherwise objective reporting. Similar to Hunter S. Thompson’s gonzo journalism, in which the person telling the story is a key participant in the story itself, Wolfe dabbles in New Journalism—a form that blurs the lines of journalism and art. New Journalism still reports facts but from a somewhat subjective perspective.  

            In The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Wolfe experiments through diction, syntax, and punctuation. He claims, “I have tried not only to tell what the Pranksters did but to re-create the mental atmosphere or subjective reality of it. I don’t think their adventure can be understood without that” (Wolfe 415). And he’s correct, in my opinion. He draws readers into what it feels like to be alongside Kesey while simultaneously explicitly telling us what it is like to be alongside Kesey. He captures and induces a mood, but also relays information.

            For example, Kesey held the notion that “you’re either on the bus or off the bus” (Wolfe, 83). There was a literal bus
and you better get your ass on it or you’ll be left. But Wolfe doesn’t just quote Kesey and then leave readers to figure out that little cracked out fortune cookie. Wolfe shows us what it means to be off the bus, i.e. not attune to the group consciousness. The very words themselves, the rhythm of them strewn together, and the appearance of them on the page, reeks of that on-or-off-the-bus aura.

            It would be difficult for a book about such an unusual cast of characters to be bad because the people are so intrinsically interesting. Kesey, much like historical prophetic figures, had persuasive, articulate, and innovative beliefs about what it’s like to exist and relate in the metaphysical world. His philosophy stemmed from the ideas of Aldous Huxley in The Doors of Perception. Luckily for you, I’ve reviewed that book and you can read all about his ideas!

            Unfortunately, with Kesey as the main focus, other compelling characters remain underdeveloped. Neal Cassady notoriously inspired the big names of the Beat Generation—a 1950s bohemian literary movement that morphed into the hippie wave of the 1960s via Cassady and Kesey. The fact that we read virtually nothing about Cassady, other than his speed-fueled way of speech and daring driving, means that the content of Kool-Aid could have been better distributed. Less Kesey, more everyone else.

            Speaking of less and more, the mantra *less is more* goes unheeded. The book is too damn long. Wolfe’s method of pulling readers into Kesey’s vision feels a bit like virtual reality goggles. The images are interesting and exciting…to a point. At 415 pages, Kool-Aid’s novelty wears off and ultimately feels too disjointed; thus, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test receives 3 out of 5 camel humps.

*Wolfe, Tom. The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. New York: Picador, 1968. Print.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Interpreter of Maladies

            Have I harped on the beauty of a good short story collection enough? When I read Tenth of December, I thought I’d found *the one*. When I stumbled upon the brilliant Best American Short Stories 2013, I started having an affair with the series. Ever since, I’ve been like
            For real, well-written short stories are great for the soul. The good ones strike the perfect pace-- drawing readers in to efficiently evoke emotion. Every word counts, because space is limited. Plus, it’s a very practical form; short stories are there for you when you don’t have much time and they’re ideal book bait for self-proclaimed non-readers. 

            Interpreter of Maladies* is a short story collection written by Jhumpa Lahiri that won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. It consists of nine stories that all involve Indians or Indian Americans. More often than not, characters cope with displacement. The characters must navigate the cultural ramifications of existing outside of a familiar space. They explore their identities through their relationships with others as well as their connections to their homeland.

            Considering the fact that the general subject matter remains the same for all, each piece has an impressively distinctive voice. The tone is usually somber, but instead of overwhelming readers with the sadness of the plot, Lahiri reminds us of the human being behind the experiences. Even if things don’t go their way, characters find a way to endure the pain. Thus, Lahiri has created more than just a geographical understanding of Indian immigration. She has drawn an emotional map of how to steer through traumatic terrain and reconcile your roots with newness.

            I enjoyed some stories in the collection more than others, but every piece interested me in its own right. The Pulitzer Prize peeps got it right this time (see these older reviews of Pulitzer-winning works, some of which are phenomenal while others disappoint): All the Light We Cannot See, A Visit from the Goon Squad, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Middlesex, Beloved, To Kill a Mockingbird, and The Old Man and the Sea. Additionally: Your Movie Sucks, which won a Pulitzer Prize for Criticism, not Fiction, duh). Interpreter of Maladies receives 4 out of 5 camel humps.

*Lahiri, Jhumpa. Interpreter of Maladies. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1999. Print.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

To Kill a Mockingbird

            Recently, I re-read To Kill a Mockingbird*. Not to be confused with Tequila Mockingbird—a book of cocktail recipes related to literary works that I highly recommend. Mix 3 ounces of grapefruit juice with 1.5 ounces of rye whiskey, and you have yourself a “Rye and Prejudice”.

            If you went through the American public school system, you’ve probably read this book. If you’ve read this book, you probably loved it. If you didn’t, you’re a monster.

            Fine, I take it back. No literary prejudices here-- Atticus Finch wouldn’t like that. In fact, because Atticus embodies integrity, courage, and righteousness, he doesn’t condone any kind of prejudice. Atticus—the parent of Scout (the narrator) and Jem—serves as the moral compass for the novel. Although he’s portrayed a little overly idealistic, I don’t mind. I like the pleasant portrait of a single father raising his kids to be thoughtful and kind despite societal pressures. Sue me!

            Harper Lee spends a long time carefully crafting the setting to show readers how the Maycomb townsfolk are stuck in their 1930s ways. Children inherit the sins and glories of their ancestors and they’re judged by the family name. So, racial biases—especially in rural Alabama—are particularly hard to shake off. When Atticus defends Tom Robinson, a black man, he’s asking a group of intransigent people to radically change their mindset. It goes without saying that this is not entirely well received.

            Telling the story from the perspective of a child (Scout) is ingenious. Scout observes the town and its enforced stereotypes about class, race, and gender through the lens of youthful innocence with a comical matter-of-fact voice. There is also a unique wisdom she possesses; she’s un*adult*erated by the cynicism that accompanies getting older. She has yet to witness a grown woman shitting on the subway. She hasn’t had to cope with the rising price of avocado. She’s pure.

            There are plenty of bases for discussion in To Kill a Mockingbird, as well as an array of interesting characters worth exploring, which is why the novel has found such success. A conversation about the compassion of Boo Radley—the town’s mysterious recluse—is just as lively and enriching as a chat about the severe pride of Mrs. Dubose—a mean, dying old lady. I think that Harper Lee gives us an assortment of characters to underscore that we’re all one and the same, trying our best. Just typing that sentence makes me nauseous, but she’s able to accomplish the thematic life lesson without being cheesy. Mmmm cheese.

            I’m not the first person to praise Harper Lee for her entertaining and poignant work, so I’m unashamedly adding myself to her list of admirers. While I never discourage reading at an early age, I’m sometimes uneasy with the idea of assigning “classic” literature to students, because I fear that they won’t be old enough or won’t care enough to appreciate them. I’ve always been a reader, but it wasn’t until I hit my twenties that I started to value books in a deep, three-dimensional way. Are we scaring off teenagers when we assign them Moby Dick? To Kill a Mockingbird is an exception. I think it’s an excellently written book, accessible to all ages, and a thought-provoking platform to jumpstart genuine dialogues about important, relevant subjects. Thus, To Kill a Mockingbird receives 5 out of 5 camel humps.

*Lee, Harper. To Kill a Mockingbird. New York: Hachette Book Group, 1960. Print.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

The Picture of Dorian Gray

            I’ll start by stating the obvious: the 21st century encourages vanity. Before there was Instagram, SnapChat filters, and waist training, we had Oscar Wilde’s 1890 novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray*.

            In the book, Dorian Gray goes from an idealistic youth to a ruthless man who will stop at nothing to maintain his boyish beauty. A talented artist, Basil Hallward, paints Dorian at his physical peak. Encouraged by the hedonism of a fellow aristocrat, Lord Henry, Dorian makes a pivotal wish for the face of the portrait to grow old in lieu of his own. His obsession with aesthetics spurs a moral decline that destroys himself and his companions.

            The structure is simple: portrait ages, person does not; however, Wilde animates the plot with lively dialogue and complex characters. Lord Henry isn’t supposed to be a good guy worth emulating, but I found him hilarious and poetic. Here are some words of wisdom from the Lord:
  • Lord Henry on aging: “We degenerate into hideous puppets, haunted by the memory of the passions of which we were too much afraid, and the exquisite temptations that we had not the courage to yield to.” (Wilde, 23)
  • Lord Henry on being virtuous and faithful: “…the people who love only once in their lives are really the shallow people. What they call their loyalty, and their fidelity, I call either their lethargy of custom or their lack of imagination.” (Wilde, 45)
  • Lord Henry on rewinding time: “To get back my youth, I would do anything in the world, except take exercise, get up early, or be responsible.” (Wilde, 186).

            See! He’s such a glamorous, self-indulgent nut-job. I can just picture him lounging on a fainting chair, sipping champagne, and telling his friends how he hates their skincare regime.

            Wilde’s book is a timeless, foreboding reminder of what we’re capable of when we put pride above all else. As evidenced by the Lord Henry quotes, Wilde is a beautiful writer. His experience as a playwright informs his writing such that I was really able to picture The Picture of Dorian Gray in my head. If you’ve heard of Oscar Wilde but haven’t read any of his stuff, this is your chance! The Picture of Dorian Gray receives 5 out of 5 camel humps.

            Side note: the cover photo for my book is titled “Oscar Wilde in a Pensive Mood Sitting on a Divan During His Stay in America”, which is how all photos should be captioned.

*Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray. Trans. Richard Ellmann. New York: Bantam Classics, Inc., 1982. Print.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017


            In elementary school, I renamed my teachers mean things behind their backs if I didn’t like them. The librarian went from Mrs. Motival to Mrs. Mont-evil. The lunch monitor transformed from Mrs. Hoshibosh to Mrs. Hossy “Bossy”. Since then, I always pair the word bossy with a whistle and undercooked green beans.

            Tina Fey’s 2011 autobiography, Bossypants* makes no mention of soggy vegetables. Instead, Fey gifts us tales of the unique history that led to her successes today. She does so humbly (but not too humbly) and wittily.

            I’ll cut to the chase. Do you like Tina Fey? If the answer is no, you’ve obviously never seen Mean Girls. Go do that now. If the answer is yes, you will like this book. It will probably not be your favorite book in the world, but you will enjoy your reading adventure.

            Reasons why I’m partial to this book as a Fey-fan:

·      She graduated from UVA. I graduated from UVA. I feel famous by association. We get to read about her embarrassing encounters with collegiate men.
·      She has a great deal of experience in improv, and she drops nuggets of craft-related wisdom in the book.
·      She wrote for SNL when being a white middle-class woman counted as diversity in comedy. She unveils the grueling writing process for the show as well as some of the ensuing chaos. Surprisingly, she tells us quite a lot about Lorne Michaels, whom I envision as Wizard of Oz behind the creative curtain.
·      She created 30 Rock, which is a funny program. She tells us about the show’s development and some bloopery behind-the-scenes mishaps.
·      She holds an uncanny resemblance to an Alaskan Dodo bird, otherwise known as Sarah Palin. Fey returns to SNL as a routine guest during election season because of the likeness. Turns out, it’s not all accidental grandchildren and poor political platforms!

            Bossypants takes a generally lighthearted tone, but it’s not substance-less, because Fey leads an interesting, atypical life. She presents readers something about herself or her world in seriousness and then wraps it up with a clever one-liner. Her book = inspiration + insider information + comedic twist. I never lost myself in a fit of laughter, but I also don’t think that is her intent.

            Overall, Fey slays as a female in the comedy world but her autobiography is not worthy of a full 5-hump rating. I like hearing about her experiences, but—let’s get real—it’s not that difficult to talk about yourself. Bossypants receives 4 out of 5 camel humps.

*Fey, Tina. Bossypants. New York: Little Stranger, Inc., 2011. Print