Drink the Tea

Drink the Tea by Thomas Kaufman 9780312607302

publication date: 2010
pages: 294
ISBN: 978-0-312-60730-2

In Drink the Tea, Thomas Kaufman attempted to present a detective story set in Washington, D.C. Generally, his attempt failed. I didn’t care about the mystery, the other parts of the plot, or the characters. Additionally, Kaufman’s writing was generally confusing or ineffective. I will say, his themes and motifs were engaging enough.

The plot followed P.I. Willis Gidney as he searched for his friend’s missing daughter. The plot also contained multiple flashbacks to Gidney’s own tragic childhood, as an orphan in the D.C. system. The plot found Gidney haranguing politicians, bugging government workers, shaking down criminals, lying to cops, scaring innocent civilians, and just generally annoying everyone. This bit of dialogue from the first chapter was a good representation of how irksome Gidney was throughout the entire book:

Steps Jackson leaned across the table and said, “I want you to find my daughter.”
I stared at him, my coffee cup halfway to my lips. “You’ve got a daughter?”
“Why would I ask you to find a daughter I don’t have?” A wave of irritation crossed his face.

Waves of irritation were constantly crossing my face as I was reading this book. Everything was so confusing, from the tiniest detail to entire plot points. Here was an example of a small detail that was confusing and just seemed like lazy writing, from a scene where Gidney was searching an apartment building:

The top floor was the same, until I reached the rear apartment. It looked like it had been lived in more recently, though I couldn’t say how recently. And, unlike the rest of the building, this apartment had been cleaned out, there was nothing in the corners, no trash, no papers. Only some torn black plastic trash bags.

OK. So. Was there trash in the apartment or wasn’t there? And if there was nothing in the apartment, what made Gidney think someone lived there? If the only thing that was in the apartment was trash bags, how in the hell could it look lived in?

Beyond the confusing nature of the writing, it was very stylized and clunky. Here was an example of the author being sarcastic about his own story:

Men and women draped themselves over wrought iron chairs, speaking the poetry of programming code. Two or three male customers were getting pretty steamed up about cryptology and freedom of speech. One of them got so angry that he actually sloshed coffee over the brim of his cup. Exciting times.

Although I thought the book was pretty bad, there were some things I liked about it. Washington, D.C. was generally presented in a specific and detailed way, as though it was a character in itself. And some of Kaufman’s writing was effective. I liked this passage that occurred after Gidney was arrested:

[The guard] said, “This way.”
Meaning, follow me, asshole, down this long, musty green hallway that smells like piss with these sickly green fluorescent lights that flicker and strobe and into this changeless dungeon a city block long where you can breathe the same air you breathed twenty years ago and see the same faces staring at you as you walk the hallway and have the same cell you had as a kid and step to the side as the door slides open and without a word walk inside this cell because this is your cell and you know it and maybe you’ll get out soon and maybe you won’t but one thing for sure, the sound of the cell door closing is the loudest, most final sound you’ll ever hear.

This was a detective story without an engaging mystery, surrounded in generally poor writing. Although there were some bright spots, I would not recommend Drink the Tea.

2/6: many problems

other reviews (somehow, people gave the book generally positive reviews):

Mysterious Reviews
Amazon
Goodreads

Butterfly Winter

Hi all! I’m sorry for my extended break. I was busy with the holidays and then, this January, I’ve been doing the final edits for my friend Beaufield Berry’s first book: Childhood Friends. But all should be back on track now. Thank you for reading!

Butterfly Winter by W.P. Kinsella9781586422059

publication date: 2011
pages: 300
ISBN: 978-1-58642-205-9

W.P. Kinsella, probably most famous for writing Shoeless Joe – the inspiration for the movie Field of Dreams, wrote several books and stories that centered around baseball and magical realism. Butterfly Winter was just such a book, and was the last book he ever published.

The book introduced Julio and Esteban Pimental: twin brothers born in the fictional Latin American country of Courteguay. The boys were born playing baseball and quickly ascended the ranks and began playing professional ball in America at the age of ten. They went on to play for several successful years as their home country of Courteguay was consumed by human rights abuses that were put into place by a string of homegrown dictators.

Butterfly Winter exhibited a lot of what might be called “magical realism,” but was what I would call nonsense. Here’s an example of a story told about a baseball pitcher who carried around the arm of another pitcher, who had recently died:

What happened next, and this is a secret between us, resulted in Milan Garza’s finest year in the Major Leagues, the year he won thirty-five games.
“Milan Garza used to carry the arm in a tuba case. . . . Milan Garza told the Old Dictator that he pitched until he got tired, or was being hit too hard, then he let Barojas Garcia pitch for a while.”
“A portable relief pitcher?” asked Julio. . . . “Is that how it happened?” Julio asked.
“If it isn’t, it’s the way it should have happened,” said the Wizard.

Because the plot was so “magical,” nothing made sense. Magic and possibility were used to explain everything. For me, this meant the plot had no meaning, and I was rarely interested in the story or the characters. Here’s an example of the exaggerated characters:

Julio was walking by seven months, however Esteban remained stable in the catcher’s crouch until he was nearly three. . . . The women immediately fell in love with [Julio]. He would stare arrogantly at the prettiest female in the audience, tug suggestively at his diaper, then unleash a wild pitch into the crowd, aimed, usually with great accuracy, at the stuffiest looking male present.

This kind of writing style, while boring to me, might be interesting and fun to someone else. However, the biggest problem I had with the book was its treatment of dark-skinned people and Latin American history and government. Most of the characters were explicitly light-skinned, and here were the descriptions of the two most prominent dark-skinned characters in the book:

[Julio] picked a woman who, while not unattractive, was of a type not desirable to him. She was a black girl with a wild tumbleweed of hair. She wore a read skirt slit to the waist, and a turquoise blouse that showed off her sloping breasts. She was brazen, not very intelligent, and almost impossible to understand when she spoke.

I thought that was pretty bad but then there was this description of another character:

Dr. Noir wore a smart vizored military hat with gold braid and epaulets on his shoulders the size of giant hairbrushes. His cheeks were like black, pockmarked grapefruit halves, so black they might have been polished. A round surgical mask, white as an angel, covered his nose, hiding the huge, slug-like lips Quita knew well from photographs.

As I am quoting this passage I honestly cannot believe someone had the temerity to put those words to page. I was going to include another passage that denigrated Haiti, but I don’t want to read any more of this stuff.

So with that said:

2/6: many problems

other reviews:

The Globe and Mail
Magic Realism Blog
Quill & Quire

Jackaby

Jackaby by William Ritter9781616203535

publication date: 2014
pages: 209
ISBN: 978-1-61620-353-5

William Ritter took several successful formulas – a Sherlock-esque antisocial detective, a supernatural mystery, a steam punky female narrator – and spliced them together to form Jackaby.

The book followed Abigail Rook as she arrived in New Fiddleham, New England, in 1892. Abigail stumbled upon Jackaby, an eccentric detective of the occult, and began work for him as his assistant. The two quickly (unnervingly quickly) encountered a murder that needed solving. Abigail and Jackaby worked together, along with a police officer, a banshee, and a ghost, to solve the case.

In general, I found the whole book to be quite tedious. Jackaby was almost a straight rip-off of Sherlock Holmes, except he argued for the metaphysical and not against it. As an example, here was Jackaby convincing a police officer to take them further into a crime scene, which I’m pretty sure I’ve seen in every Sherlock ever:

“Wait,” said Charlie, following. “I told the inspector [Marlowe] I would take you out of the building.”

“And so you shall,” Jackaby called over his shoulder. “Expertly, I imagine, and to the letter of the instruction. However, I don’t recall Marlowe giving any specific directions about time, nor about the route we take, so let’s have a quick chat with someone odd, first, shall we? I do love odd. Ah, here we are!”

I also solved the case 1/3 through the book and figured out the red herring about 2/3 of the way through. That’s not me bragging, because I’m not the type to “figure out” books while I read them. That’s me showing how transparent the plot was.

The writing was also tiresome. Ritter attempted to falsely insert drama and interest. Here was a small example, as both Abigail and Jackaby were walking from Jackaby’s office to the post office to work on the case:

My stomach was growling audibly as Jackaby paid the vendor for two steamy meat pies. . . .

“So, what we know thus far,” Jackaby said suddenly, as if the ongoing conversation in his head had bubbled over and simply poured out his mouth, “is our culprit left poor Mr. Bragg with a wicked chest wound and a grieving girlfriend, and he made off with a good deal of the fellow’s blood. . . .”

Ritter was obviously trying to create tension by having what Jackaby did be “sudden,” but I honestly do not know how Jackaby could have started that conversation any less suddenly. Was he supposed to say: “Alright, I’m going to talk about the case now, it’s coming up, just about to talk about it. Are you ready? Here we go. . .”

The unoriginal characters, thin plot, and simplistic writing meant that I had almost no emotional investment in the book.

The book wasn’t the worst thing in the world. Ritter did have some imaginative beasties and fantastical creatures. And there was one part of the book that I actively liked, when Abigail and Jackaby were questioning a woman:

[Hatun said,] “Oh no. been keeping to myself, kept my shawl on all tight all night, didn’t want anyone finding me after what I saw.”

“You were hiding in your shawl?” I asked.

Hatun gave the pale blue knit shawl around her shoulders an affectionate tug. “Only street folk can see me in this, beggars and homeless, like. Never had much cause to watch out for them – they’re good souls, the most of ‘em. For everyone else – well, it doesn’t make me invisible or nothing, just impossible to notice.” She smiled proudly.

Jackaby and I exchanged glances.

“Erm, I found you,” said my colleague.

Hatun gave him a knowing wink. “You don’t exactly follow the rules when it comes to finding things, though, now do you, Detective?”

I thought that passage was an effective commentary on how we can overlook the homeless and downtrodden.

If someone was intensely interested in this genre, I would recommend this book, because it followed the mold closely. For the rest of us, I thought the book had:

2/6: many problems

Other reviews of the book:

Nerdist
teenreads
Cuddle Buggery

Cute, Quaint, Hungry and Romantic

Cute, Quaint, Hungry and Romantic: The Aesthetics of Consumerism by Daniel Harris 

publication date: 2000
pages: 265
ISBN: 0-465-02848-9

I present for you another bitter, overblown nonfiction book. How do I keep getting tricked into reading these? I guess that’s what happens when I judge a book by its cover (and title).

In Cute, Quaint, Hungry and Romantic, Harris attempted to enlighten us, dear readers, with all the aesthetics that marketers use to manipulate us into buying their stuff, from “cute” to “cleanness.” He was very very serious about his undertaking. Here’s a sample sentence that shows just how seriously, and non-sensically, he took it:

The stylistic distortions of the market-place often reflect tensions in our attitudes towards the things and people around us: towards our children, whose waywardness we seek to smother beneath the conventions of cuteness; towards parents, whose denial of adolescents’ sexuality and independence our offspring throw back in our faces by adopting the exaggerated mannerisms of coolness; and even towards computer software, whose gaudy aesthetic emerges from the anarchic aspirations of programmers who seek to hide from themselves the dull, bureaucratic realities of their lives.

That sentence got crazier and crazier until it was a great big WHAT?!?!

I don’t know why he took this topic so seriously and reacted to it so brutally. Sure, I’m not fan of manipulative marketing, but, as he admitted, he can’t see an alternative. Instead, in his infinite wisdom, he always felt:

[I]t is sufficient for me to destroy – to slash, to burn – and [I] have never felt any desire to formulate utopian solutions, not only because I wish to avoid blunting the full force of my skepticism and palliating my reader’s urgent need for happy endings, but because I frankly do not have any answers to offer, no five-year plan, no program for reform, no campaign for organizing the Great Leap Forward into paradise on Earth.

(If the above passages are not enough to convince you that the author is seemingly a pompous dick, maybe this will: in his acknowledgements he thanks his ex in a way that reminds everyone that they used to date and are now great friends, notwithstanding his ex’s new guy:

As always, I would like to thank my former lover Anthony Aziz and his current companion Sammy Cucher for their loyalty and friendship. Life wouldn’t be the same without these two tremendous friends.)

Maybe I could have found the book’s discussion of marketing and aesthetics interesting. Probably not. But it’s tough to tell because it was hard to look past the author’s excessive and silly analysis.

2/6: many problems

other reviews of the book:

Publishers Weekly
Salon
12 Frogs

Bananas

Bananas: How the United Fruit Company Shaped the World by Peter Chapman

publication date: 2007
pages: 208
ISBN-13: 978-1-84195-881-1

For such a slim book, Bananas took me forever to finish. And even at that slow pace, I still skimmed some parts. Why, you ask? Because Bananas was so nonsensically and enigmatically written as to be boring.

Bananas was supposed to be a history of the United Fruit Company in Central America and the world. However, Chapman didn’t even mention the founding of United Fruit until page 168. Instead, he bounced around from the 1980s to the 1880s and back again in vaguely chronological order. His use of dates was very confusing and was rarely tethered to anything meaningful like historical context or cause and effect.

Not only was Chapman’s use of dates and chronology confusing and disjointed, but his introduction and discussion of the important people in the story was just as bewildering. Chapman would introduce someone in a passage with no mention of why they were important to United Fruit and then would ignore them for dozens of pages. An example is Chapman’s treatment of the Cabot family, who were introduced in a discussion of Andrew Preston:

Socially ambitious Preston preferred to stay at home. Boston’s ‘Brahmins’ were a tight-knit bunch that ruled the city . . . . [T]hey were mostly of English background, although one leading family, the Cabots, came in 1700 from Jersey in the Channel Islands . . . . The families married well and famously, and set up dynasties: the Jefferson Coolidges, the Cabot Lodges. As such they ran the political, economic and social life of a city known as ‘Beantown’ for one of its favourite foods and the ‘Hub’ from an assumed central position in the universe. As a local toast would have it: ‘And this is good old Boston, The land of the bean and the cod, Where the Lowells talk to the Cabots, And the Cabots talk only to God.’

The Cabots weren’t again mentioned until seventy pages later, and even then, I still don’t understand their importance. I hope that long quote displays Chapman’s confounding and erratic writing style, including odd uses of quotation marks and unnecessary interjections.

To further confuse things, Chapman would shift between narrators. Sometimes the book was scrawled in a textbook style, with facts being relayed with little interpretation. Other times, and with no explanation, Chapman would insert his own voice and discuss events in his own life. Another long passage illustrates the confusion:

[President Anastosio] Somoza’s story was familiar: a few bandits assailed him from distant mountain hideaways. Radical priests had joined in and were sadly deluded people who should not concern themselves with politics. What they failed to grasp, Somoza went on, was that he had pitched himself against the greedy rich on behalf of the poor. As for Jimmy Carter, the US’s present leader, Somoza found himself hard pushed to remain polite. Under Carter, the White House had taken leave of its senses and opened the way for Communism.

Actually, from what I understood, the guerrillas fighting Somoza were capable of seizing important towns just a couple of hours away north along the Pan-American Highway.

Perhaps you’re thinking that passage was confusing because you aren’t reading it in context. I can assure you that context does not help anything. Almost the entire book was written like this. I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say I learned nothing.

2/6: many problems

Here are other reviews of the book; the first two are positive. I really don’t understand how anyone who read the book could call it a “page-turner” or “breezy but insightful,” but here you go:

A.V. Club
New York Times
Yale Global

Girls to the Front

Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution by Sara Marcus

publication date: 2010
pages: 367 (including back matter)
ISBN: 978-0-06-180636-0

For anyone unfamiliar with the Riot Grrrl movement, it is, according to Wikipedia:

an underground feminist punk rock movement that originally started in the early 1990s, in Washington, D.C., and the greater Pacific Northwest . . . . In addition to a music scene and genre, riot grrrl is a subculture involving a DIY ethic, zines, art, political action, and activism.

That definition was about as much as I knew about Riot Grrrl, so I decided to read this book and learn a little more about the movement.

Sara Marcus obviously felt very passionate about the movement and spent time collecting and investigating it. Her bibliography included hours of interviews, Riot Grrrl zines, many books and essays, and more. However, this passion did not translate into a cohesive or informative story. Marcus related several anecdotes and events, but with no coherent theme or objective. In fact, the first morsel of a theme that I spotted was in the Acknowledgments at the back of the book.

There were many problems with Marcus’s storytelling of Riot Grrrl beyond the lack of coherence. It was bogged-down in name-dropping, for example. There were several pages about Nirvana and Kurt Cobain, who were barely tangentially related to Riot Grrrl. Many passages also contained Marcus’s rants and raves about things with no appreciable connection to Riot Grrrl or to each other. At one point, Marcus sent up the song “Right Here, Right Now” by Jesus Jones. Marcus snarked:

True youth rebellion is always elsewhere, and verily, ’tis better that way, without the chaos and collateral damage and inconvenient principles that always seem to mar such movements in close-up.

If you’re wondering what this idea has to do with a mediocre 1990s pop song, I am too.

One thing Marcus was competent at was accurately portraying her subjects and the Riot Grrrl movement. This meant that the portrayal was not always favorable. There’s this story where members of Riot Grrrl punish some “jerky boys” at a concert:

And once, at a huge alienating jock-filled Fugazi/Slant 6 show at the University of Maryland where some jerky boys booed Erika’s onstage announcement about Riot Grrrl, the girls went into the women’s bathroom and inked WRITE RAPIST’S NAMES HERE on the wall; one girl from the college asked to borrow Erika’s marker and wrote a name up on the wall right away.

I would recommend this book only if you have a burning interest in this topic.

2/6: many problems

A.V. Club
L.A. Times
bitchmedia

Can’t and Won’t

Can’t and Won’t by Lydia Davis

publication date: 2014
pages: 304
ISBN: 978-0374118587

If I were to write this review in the style of Lydia Davis’s new book Can’t and Won’t, it would look something like this:

A Review of a Book That I Read

I sit here at my laptop; the cheap laptop that I purchased some years ago while I was drunk in an electronics store with my boyfriend who I had been with for many months after we drank several higher-priced beers, and I thoughtfully write this review. My fingers and thumbs tap the hard black keyboard, which has white writing on it – the writing is in the shape of the letters or symbols that appear on screen as I hit the keys.

My mind ponders this book, which is a collection of stories and observations. I am inclined to give it the benefit of the doubt because I always give books the benefit of the doubt, even if they don’t deserve the benefit of the doubt. However, I can’t do that with this book because as I read it, as my eyes moved from left to right over the off-white pages in the act of reading, my brain was screaming at me to stop reading, to stop my eyes’ movement, to sleep, to dream, to never wake again; or at the very least to read something else.

I reflect on what others would optimistically call the content of Can’t and Won’t. The author, who I don’t know but I’m sure is personally known by a great number of people, seemed to think of this book as a repository for any wisp of an idea that flew through her mind, much as a good book would be a repository for fully-developed good ideas that the author culled and deliberately chose. Much of this book doubles as a dream journal, with Davis soberly relaying the plots of her dreams, including the two dreams where she went to the bank, which was different but she knew it was a bank, you know how it is in dreams; the dream where she walked through a hallway with a white dog; and the dream where she had a bodyguard.

Perhaps the most maddening portion of this very maddening book, was when Davis spent 15 pages, which was one of the longest passages, and when I say that I don’t mean a hallway but rather an assemblage of words in a book, stating her observations about some cows, in a way that I can only describe as Randy Newmanesque:

They are motionless until they move again, one foot and then another – fore, hind, fore, hind – and stop in another place, motionless again. . . .

They are often like a math problem: 2 cows lying down in the snow, plus 1 cow standing up looking at the hill, equals 3 cows.

Or: 1 cow lying down in the snow, plus 2 cows on their feet looking this way across the road, equals 3 cows.

Today, they are all three lying down. . . .

At dusk, when our light is on indoors, they can’t be seen, though they are there in the field across the road. If we turn off the light and look out into the dusk, gradually they can be seen again.

Like 17 vacuum cleaners sitting on a showroom floor after the 18th vacuum cleaner has just been purchased, this book sucked.

2/6: many problems

New York Times
Christian Science Monitor
The Boston Globe