Two-for-One Review: “Solar” and “The Lacuna”

April 29, 2010 at 12:49 pm | Posted in Fiction, Two-for-One Review, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Everyone has at least one favorite author whose newest offering makes us tremble with excitement, even if we don’t know what it’s about yet.  Ian McEwan and Barbara Kingsolver are two of the authors on my own list.  I was surprised to realize I was finding parallels between their new work.

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(Notice the two book covers are actually somewhat color-coordinated, and both have a round shape in the center?  I just thought that was cool).

Solar is, as far as I can tell, a bit of a departure for McEwan, because it’s actually funny.  (I’ve only read four of his books – I’m hoarding them for a rainy day – but I hadn’t counted on humor from him).  It’s not just funny; it’s even screamingly funny, at least in one scene.  What it’s really about, though, is a bad person who might be able to save the world for all the wrong reasons.  It’s almost a parable for the human condition, and I think there are layers and layers of subtle meaning here.  In my opinion, it’s his most powerful work.

The Lacuna has what Kingsolver does best, which is a warm, immersive look at another culture.  It’s about an ordinary person (or at least he thinks he is) caught up in the midst of history, and what a maelstrom of history it is.  It’s put together in the form of diary entries, newspaper articles, and letters.  While it’s probably being promoted as a book about Frida Kahlo, it’s really more about communism and government control.

Both books are tremendously earnest about a political issue.  McEwan talks about global warming, and it’s impossible to miss the message.  Kingsolver wants to ask us why we are still blowing off communism, just because Stalin tricked Trotsky and stole leadership of the party.  (Is it our fascist government?)  As books with a message, Solar is highly effective; McEwan excels as always at giving his characters complicated jobs and rich intellectual lives, putting the scientific elements of his story within the reader’s grasp.  Kingsolver starts with the assumption that the reader gets the basic premise of communism and is perhaps even sympathetic to it.  The Lacuna revolves around the question of Why Are These Innocent People Being Tormented, but it only works if the reader’s educational background does not lead to the conclusion that they deserve it because their politics are wrong.

Both books can be read as interesting stories about interesting characters.  Political books tend to put people off, though, and I think it’s possible in both cases that readers who are not already in the same camp will wish these were issue-free.  After all, we read for escape, right?

Two-for-One Review: “Many Lives, Many Masters” and “Crimes Against Logic”

July 23, 2009 at 10:01 am | Posted in Nonfiction, Two-for-One Review | Leave a comment

These books might seem, at first glance, like strange bedfellows for a Two-for-One Review.  I have to do it, though, because on our trip last weekend my man Rocket Scientist and I found ourselves reading these books at the same time.  Every time I would nudge him and have him read a few lines, he would laugh and point at his book, because it seemed to be addressing something relevant.

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Many Lives, Many Masters is subtitled:  The True Story of a Prominent Psychiatrist, His Young Patient, and the Past-Life Therapy That Changed Both Their Lives.  I read it because my mom wanted me to.  When I gave it back to her, I said, “When you offer me a book and ask me to tell you what I think, you should make sure you really want to know.”  See, my degree is in history, and my family often calls upon me to critique things like the costuming in historical movies.  I read a few reviews of this book, and none that I could find seemed to address this book from an historian’s perspective.

Let me start right out by saying that I am not a debunker.  In fact I’m a big old New Ager.  I believe in reincarnation.  Why not?  Frankly I don’t think it matters in the slightest what happens after death.  It just doesn’t.  We’re here now and we need to make the most of it, because when we do die, we’re definitely not going to carry on just as we are here on earth.  Who cares what’s next?  There’s no way to prove it, and nobody agrees, so let’s move on to things we can agree on, like having less stress in life.  And if we’re bothered by something, it doesn’t seem to matter whether it originated in a past life experience or not.  The fact is that we’ll have to accommodate our reaction to the bad experience one way or the other.  Maybe I have a chronic pain.  Is it related to a spear wound my spirit received in 963 AD?  *shrug*  My problem is, it’s bothering me now.  Back to the review.

Weiss’s patient makes some specific comments about things that happened in different time periods.  (Most of her regressions seem to involve general comments about hair and eye color and family composition).  There is a pretty basic problem with trying to “prove” reincarnation by “verifying” past life regression information:  if it’s based on verifiable facts, it’s open to criticism, because the person could have heard of that information somewhere; if it’s not verifiable, well, then we can’t verify it.  We would need someone to say something under hypnosis that was then verified years later by a brand-new archaeological dig, or a rediscovered document that had never before been translated into that person’s language.  The deeper problem is that when someone in this context does make a statement that can be verified, we’re under an obligation to do so.

“Elizabeth” says (p. 41) that she wore clothing “made from animal skins” in “Kirustan Territory” in the Netherlands.  In 1473.  To quote a famous scientist, “That’s not even wrong.”  Look, clothing made from woven fabrics predates written history.  The 15th-century Dutch definitely wore what we would consider to be real clothes, and anyone – even a rural villager – who ran around in skins would have excited commentary.  Look at some of Jan Van Eyck’s paintings, for example.

One of the underpinnings of this book is that “Elizabeth” knew things under hypnosis that she couldn’t have known at all, or didn’t know when she was conscious.  On page 111 she starts talking about Egyptian deities, and mentions Hathor.  Dr. Weiss is amazed.  Yet she came to him for therapy in the first place after visiting an Egyptian exhibit at a museum!  These hypnosis sessions occurred in the early 80’s, so Weiss’s belief that Elizabeth had never been exposed to ideas like reincarnation or karma seems odd.  Anyone who grew up in the 60’s and 70’s could hardly have missed exposure to album and book covers, posters, movies, magazine articles, and overheard conversations, many of which must have dealt with unconventional spiritual matters.  It was the zeitgeist.  Say I’m wrong and she was hermetically mentally sealed against all things New Age – Weiss’s belief that Elizabeth learned private personal matters about him through psychic powers really kinda belongs in a separate book.  Proof of psychic powers doesn’t simultaneously prove reincarnation, though that would be cool.

On pages 167-8 Elizabeth is talking about being a soldier.  “I hear them talking about Moors… and a war that’s being fought…. The year is 1483.  Something about Danes.  Are we fighting the Danes?  Some war is being fought.”  First I have to ask if this is the same lifetime in which she was wearing animal skins in the Netherlands, because that was 1473.  Second, I have to ask what on earth we are talking about here.  If there had been a medieval war involving both Danes and Moors, I’m pretty positive we would know about it.  In the 15th century, there were Moors in Spain, sure, but warfare in Denmark was limited to its quarrels with Sweden.  “Danes” usually refers to Vikings, who were lost to the depths of history by the 12th century.  When I had my man Rocket Scientist read this paragraph, his eyebrows about shot off the top of his forehead.  We giggled helplessly while the other plane passengers tried to ignore us.

What laypeople don’t always understand about history, especially recent history like the late medieval period, is that it’s backed up by many overlapping sources:  books, diaries, letters, paintings, archaeology, dendrochronology…  It gets progressively harder to miss large-scale events the closer we get to contemporary times.  It’s important to learn about history because it puts the present in context, and it helps us avoid the mistakes of our forebears.

On the other end of the skeptical spectrum is Jamie Whyte’s Crimes Against Logic:  Exposing the Bogus Arguments of Politicians, Priests, Journalists, and Other Serial Offenders.  We can only applaud Whyte’s desire to bring critical thinking skills to the masses, and we wish to assist in whatever way we can.  We do, however, want to ask Mr. Whyte about his audience.

See, there’s this phenomenon we call “preaching to the choir.”  If you want to exhort people to believe something, they tend to fall into three categories:  already agree with you; neutral and prefer not to be bothered; and The Opposed, who know what you’re selling and hate you for it.  Whyte addresses this issue in his section on Begging the Question.  There are people out there who cherish their irrational beliefs.  If you want them to discard these beliefs, you have to meet them in the middle.  How are you going to motivate your opposition to buy, read, and be converted by your book?  Take them seriously and set the debate using their terms.

Like most skeptics, Whyte appears to take atheism for granted.  Ten pages in, he tells us:  “Most of my friends… claim to believe in a “superior intelligence” or “something higher than us.”  Yet they will also cheerfully admit the absence of even a shred of evidence.”  So you’re saying there is nothing in the universe greater than the conscious human mind?  Then how do you keep breathing while you sleep?  Does the conscious human mind organize and propel galaxies?  Come on.  If you think the human brain is so powerful, have you ever tried to get a song out of your head?

On the same theme, that there simply must not be a divine universal power of any kind, Whyte addresses the problem of evil (p. 85).  There can’t be a god because of the inconsistency of an all-powerful, all-good being that allows evil.  Skeptics and believers are never going to agree on this – it’s another case of begging the question.  Who defines evil?  Is a hurricane evil if no beings are harmed?  What makes it ‘evil’ is the fact that people live in its path and some of them die.  That’s our perception.  People have died from choking on food.  People die.  If nobody died and the birth rate remained constant, I guarantee people would wish for death eventually!  I believe evil derives from free will and human perception.  If a deity controlled our every act and thought, there would hardly be a point in living.  But these are religious/philosophical beliefs.  To me there is very little point in debating these topics.

Whyte trips over himself a bit when he uses the Declaration of Independence as an example of illogic.  He says it isn’t self-evident that all men are created equal and entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  (I should mention that he’s not an American, a fact of which I’m sure he is quite glad).  Undoubtedly he is right – our Declaration is a beautiful piece of outrageous rhetoric – but where would we be if we had to compose every decision like a mathematical proof?  “We hold these truths to be backed up by rigorous double-blind psychological testing, that some people tend to resent slavery.”  Erk.  Similarly he takes issue with an element of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  He even points out that it’s illogical to write off a belief just because Hitler believed it.  Um, could you not have found less controversial examples to teach us logic?

The section on Weird Ideas (p. 91) takes the cake.  Whyte writes off numerology, astrology, and homeopathy, among other things, saying we know they’re just weird.  Now, how is this going to convince anyone who believes in these things to stop believing in them?  I happen to think it’s weird for people to wear uncomfortable shoes to work, and even weirder for everyone to work a 40-hour week when the amount of work required varies from person to person and day to day.  Not everyone agrees on how to define weirdness.

Somehow there must be a path between being too credulous and too logical, between Shirley MacLaine and Mr. Spock.

Two-for-One Review: “Yes Man”

April 21, 2009 at 6:20 pm | Posted in Fiction, Memoir, Two-for-One Review | Leave a comment

When I heard of the book Yes Man, by Danny Wallace, I knew I had to read it.  Shortly after, I heard it was being made into a movie.  I had the chance to watch the film shortly after reading the book, so we’ll do some compare and contrast.

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First, I have to say that I adore Jim Carrey.

Second, I have to say that it would be almost impossible to imagine a book and a movie with less in common than these two.

Third, I was surprised that, this being the case, I enjoyed both.

The book Yes Man is a true story.  The premise is that this guy is a bit depressed and becoming a recluse, and one day he has an epiphany and decides that he has to say Yes to everything.  Complications ensue.  In this sense, the movie is based on the book.

But what did they do?  The book is set in London; the movie is set in LA.  The hero of the book is Danny Wallace; in the movie he’s suddenly Carl Allen.  Danny works as a journalist with a very loose schedule; Carl works at a bank and has to wear a suit, etc.  Danny has a random conversation with a stranger on the bus, leading to his ephiphany; Carl is dragged to a New Age seminar where thousands of other people already follow the Yes philosophy.  Both characters travel, help the homeless, learn new skills, and have to be dogsbody to their friends.  Otherwise almost every single plot point is different.

I loved Yes Man the book.  It made me snort with laughter several times.  I read parts of it out loud to anyone who would listen.  It had a really positive message, but it also included some healthy doses of reality.  I really enjoyed Yes Man the movie, but I suspect I would have enjoyed it more if I’d seen it before I read the book.  It was entertaining – especially the scenes when Zooey Deschanel performs in her band – but it got off to a slow start because Carrey’s character was so mopey.

So my recommendation is, see the movie, then read the book.  And maybe even consider trying to say Yes to everything yourself!  I have to say I’m tempted.

Two-for-One Review: “The Great Railway Bazaar” and “Ghost Train to the Eastern Star”

January 15, 2009 at 1:00 am | Posted in Nonfiction, Two-for-One Review | 1 Comment

Paul Theroux has done something novel.  He has written a travelogue based on retracing his route from a travelogue he wrote three decades earlier.  Reading both of these together is fascinating on multiple levels.

The Great Railway Bazaar is full to the brim with Asia and with the irascible Theroux, his cigars, and his alcoholic benders.  It’s worth picking it up just to see the author photo, with those 70s sideburns, the checked jacket, and the paisley tie.  The Great Railway Bazaar probably touched off the trend of accurate, rather than romantic, travel writing, and it’s interesting for that.  It can also be read as an elegy for a vanished world, including Yugoslavia, Anatolia, Ceylon, Burma, and the USSR, as well as Theroux’s adored railroads.  Of course, if you’d like to read Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, this earlier work, while not essential to understanding, serves as a strong basis for comparison between the two worlds and the two Therouxes, young and old.

Ghost Train to the Eastern Star is a rewarding read.  Theroux has aged well, though he still comes across as a crusty old curmudgeon and he still likes to get soused.  There are some great comic moments when he meets people who have read one of his books but don’t recognize him.  He seems to have found peace with some spiritual issues, and I very much enjoyed reading his various attempts at charity.  Much more than his constant semi-dalliances:  we can’t tell whether he just likes to chat with prostitutes or if there’s more going on, and frankly we don’t want to know.  In Ghost Train we pick up bits of the back story behind Railway Bazaar.  The older Theroux is more thoughtful, more patient, and a better writer.  Ghost Train also touches more explicitly on politics and globalization.  It’s a great read and a great way to learn about places you might never see, like Turkmenistan.

Two-for-One Review: “The Answer is Always Yes” and “Indignation”

October 23, 2008 at 3:49 pm | Posted in Fiction, Two-for-One Review | 1 Comment

At first glance, The Answer is Always Yes by Monica Ferrell and Indignation by Philip Roth would seem to have nothing in common.  It didn’t even occur to me until I was about halfway through Indignation, but the more I thought about it, the more it clicked.  Both books are about a smart college boy from New York and his struggle to fit in with campus life.  Both books have a prominent female love interest and a gay character.  While the subject is similar, the treatment is quite different.  Ferrell’s hefty debut is more than twice the size of literary lion Roth’s slender contribution.  The settings are nearly 50 years apart, with atmospheres almost diametrically opposed.  Roth’s book seems to pick up where Ferrell’s story leaves off, though I’ll leave the reason why a mystery so you can enjoy both.

The Answer is Always Yes concerns a young guy who is desperate to climb out of geekdom and become popular.  It’s painful and poignant, and rich with all the subtle details of social cues and fashion faux pas.  Ferrell paints a realistic picture of 1990s club life.  There were elements of the narration that I found slightly gimmicky, but they did help resolve some issues of viewpoint that would have been hard to handle in a different way.  I enjoyed Ferrell’s voice and became involved in the story.  I look forward to reading her next effort.

Indignation concerns another young guy who, on the contrary, could hardly care less about popularity.  He has entirely other issues on his mind.  It’s a lightning-fast read, a novella really, and there’s a huge surprise about fifty pages in.  I loved this book.  The only other Roth novel I have read is Portnoy’s Complaint, which was hysterically funny.  Indignation has its funny moments, but it’s more serious and focused, and less neurotic, than the earlier work.  I found that it raised some fascinating philosophical questions.  Having read two books written by the same author nearly 40 years apart, I’m intrigued to go back and read more, especially considering he’s won two Pulitzers and three National Book Awards.

Indignation and The Answer is Always Yes – two compelling, tragic, enjoyable reads.

Two-for-One Review: “Manic” and “Madness”

October 16, 2008 at 3:42 pm | Posted in Memoir, Nonfiction, Two-for-One Review | 2 Comments

You know I love to read memoirs.  How can you tell?  Because I read two separate ones about bipolar disorder in the same year, that’s how.  It’s an interesting topic to me because my ex-husband is bipolar.  Maybe you’d rather read just one, though.

Both Terri Cheney’s Manic: A Memoir and Marya Hornbacher’s Madness: A Bipolar Life describe bipolar disorder from the sufferer’s perspective.  Both include binge drinking, promiscuous sex, psychiatrists, hospitalizations, medications, electroshock therapy, and trying to make it as a “normal” person.  Both expose what must have been brutally difficult events in the author’s life.

Manic focuses on Cheney’s complaint that bipolar disorder is not well understood or accepted by society.  She shares her frustration that she is held accountable for things like running up her credit cards and breaking the speed limit, when it is her illness doing these things.  Granted, she has a point, but if I were in those shoes I’d pray someone took away my cards and my car keys.  (The exact reason why I don’t keep breakfast cereal in my house – if I did I’d eat a box every two days, and I know I can’t trust myself with it).  There’s a complete lack of understanding that driving 100 mph can kill other people and that spending so much money that you can’t pay your bills leaves your creditors on the hook.  Cheney goes on to put together her book deal and finds that other people are curious, rather than repelled, by her condition.

Madness is Hornbacher’s second memoir.  Her first, Wasted, discussed her long-term battle with anorexia and bulimia.  It turns out those were the least of her problems, as she was already experiencing symptoms of undiagnosed bipolar disorder.  As it turns out, her life completely fell apart shortly after the celebrated Wasted was published.  Hornbacher sustains her earlier promise as an extremely powerful writer.  The fact that she can still write so beautifully in spite of everything she’s been through is astounding.  She presents herself during her manias and depressions as a truly crazy person.  The moments of lucidity she seems to have experienced are heartbreaking, as she keeps waking up:  literally, on the floor; or figuratively, in a strange room, not understanding how she got there or what’s going on.  She shares her grief at what’s happened to her and what she’s put her friends through, and her faith that she will keep fighting her illness.

Either memoir will give you insight into the life of a mentally ill person.  I recommend reading about this experience rather than marrying into it.

Two-for-One Review: “The Fortune Cookie Chronicles” and “Lost on Planet China”

October 9, 2008 at 5:06 pm | Posted in Nonfiction, Two-for-One Review | Leave a comment

While I was sick last week, I read two great nonfiction books about China: The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food, by Jennifer 8. Lee, and Lost on Planet China: The Strange and True Story of One Man’s Attempt to Understand the World’s Most Mystifying Nation, or How He Became Comfortable Eating Live Squid by J. Maarten Troost.  I definitely recommend either or both as funny, fascinating, and impossible to put down, even when one is lying there nearly comatose with some virus.

The Fortune Cookie Chronicles focuses on Chinese food in America and why we love it so much, even though it bears pretty much no resemblance to the food people actually eat in China.  Along the way, Lee permanently lays to rest the mystery of who invented fortune cookies.  I have to say that if you read this book, you must not do it at a time when you can’t actually get and eat some Chinese food!  The descriptions of various dishes will incite some major cravings, or at least they did for me, far out of range of any Chinese restaurant with delivery service.  But The Fortune Cookie Chronicles is not just a book for foodies and history buffs.  Lee also talks about human trafficking and the personal aspect of working in the restaurant industry in a foreign country.  This is a very well-rounded book, carefully structured and riveting.

Lost on Planet China is Troost’s third travel narrative.  He decides it might be fun to move his family to China, so he spends a few months traveling around the country scouting out a good place to settle.  What he sees turns out to be a bit different than he had expected.  There are laugh-out-loud hilarious episodes in this book.  Troost’s writing is excellent, so excellent that I put him up there in the exalted ranks of those whose work I would drop everything to read, no matter what it was.  I was impressed that, despite his skill as a humorist, he included sensitive political issues that did not find their way into Lee’s book.

Get your head around these two books about China: one by a Chinese-speaking Chinese-American writing about America’s absorption of Chinese culture, the other by a Dutch-Canadian writing about China’s absorption of Western culture.  Somewhere between the two we may have seen the real China.

Two-for-One Review: “Stolen Innocence” and “Nine Parts of Desire”

September 25, 2008 at 3:21 pm | Posted in Nonfiction, Two-for-One Review | 2 Comments

Sometimes a pattern emerges in a stack of books that was not intended by the reader, but is interesting nonetheless.  This happened to me when my book group reading list collided with my BookSwim rental pool.

Nine Parts of Desire, by Geraldine Brooks, turned out not to be the intimate tell-all I expected.  Our book group chose this book based on the enthusiastic recommendation of one of our members, who couldn’t really remember what it was about, just that she had really enjoyed it.  We had never chosen a nonfiction title before.  This one might not have been the best choice for us, as it’s painful to read and you can’t just chalk it up to fictional excess.  Nine Parts of Desire is an account of the lives of women under Islam, especially after a recent upsurge in fundamentalism.  It was published in 1995, long before 9/11 and also long before the Pulitzer that Brooks won in 2006 for March.  In this sense there is almost a foreshadowing, both of the tragic events of 2001 and also of the recognition the author was bound to receive for her powerful writing.  Every chapter grabs hold of the reader, pointing to a new injustice.

Two days later I found myself reading Stolen Innocence, the story of Elissa Wall written with Lisa Pulitzer.  Elissa Wall is one of a handful of women who have published memoirs after leaving the FLDS church, which practices polygamy and child marriage.  Hers stands out because her testimony led to the sect’s leader, Warren Jeffs, being sentenced to at least 10 years in prison.  It’s a dramatic and heart-wrenching story.  What surprised me, though, was how familiar so much of it sounded after reading Nine Parts of Desire.  Here were two fundamentalist groups from radically different religious roots, yet the standing of women was so similar in both.  The same early marriages, polygamy, strict requirements to keep the body covered, focus on having large families as quickly as possible, lack of education for women, restriction to the home with permission from a male family member needed to go anywhere, emphasis on women’s traditional skills like cooking, and shunning of outsiders – it was stunning.

What I find interesting about polygamy is that it always seems to be one man with multiple women.  If there is nothing in a religion that says only one man and one woman can be married, then why don’t we see polygamous groups with one woman and multiple men?  Or, for that matter, a mix?  I actually met a polyamorous group in college that consisted of 17 people of both genders and various persuasions.  As you can imagine, they were not part of a religious group.  In spite of all the, er, options out there, I find that one man is plenty for me.  I’m sure he’d tell you that more than one woman would be too much for him, too.

Two-for-One Review: “HeartSick” and “Sweetheart”

September 18, 2008 at 3:36 pm | Posted in Fiction, Two-for-One Review | Leave a comment

Don’t you just love a good thriller?  I have no idea why, but I sure do.  They scare me, too – I’ve read books I’ve had to lay face down on my nightstand, because the cover art just gave me the heebie-jeebies.  I’ll spook myself and go around checking the locks on the doors and windows.  The phone will ring and I’ll jump halfway out of my skin.  Yet from time to time I’ll pick up another thriller.

I read HeartSick because, of course, it was recommended on the Significant Seven and I’m trying to read them all.  (Not quite halfway yet).  I could see why it was chosen; the characters are quite vivid, there’s a highly unusual psychological dynamic, and it’s well-crafted.  Setting the story in Portland was a good choice because there are few cities that can equal its claustrophobic noir atmosphere.  (Or maybe I just feel that way because I grew up there and I prefer a sunny climate).

Sweetheart picks up a couple of months after HeartSick leaves off.  It introduces a new storyline and wraps up some things from the earlier book.  This adds a level of depth to the story, which is a notch better than HeartSick.  It’s my bet that Chelsea Cain will continue in this vein and join the ranks of the great thriller writers. 

I also think Cain’s next author photo will sport dark hair; she was blonde in the first book, red in the second.  Unless she’ll go for an exotic color?  I’ve been trying to guess a heart-themed title, too.  How about Be Still My Beating Heart or Heart-Shaped Box or HeartlessHeartburn is already taken.

That said, I have to speak my piece about some niggling details.  In HeartSick, Cain’s character claims that the blue heron is Oregon’s state bird.  It’s actually the Western meadowlark, chosen by more states than any other bird except the cardinal.  I thought everyone knew that.  Sheesh.  Then, in Sweetheart, she uses the term ‘free-trade’ when by context she means ‘fair trade.’  If your characters are constantly Googling things, it wouldn’t hurt to, um, Google those minor details.

Two-for-One Review: “Beautiful Boy” and “Tweak”

September 11, 2008 at 3:30 pm | Posted in Memoir, Nonfiction, Two-for-One Review | Leave a comment

Ladies and gentlemen, we may have witnessed the first of a new generation of memoirs: the tag-team family tell-all.  Witness David Sheff and his son, Nic, as they both wring themselves out on the topic of methamphetamine addiction.  It’s like Jerry Springer, only literary.

Beautiful Boy came out first, by a few months.  It’s agonizing.  David Sheff examines his conscience over his son’s addiction, trying to figure out what he might have done differently to raise a child who didn’t grow up to be an addict.  It’s got to be every parent’s worst nightmare.  At least if your child is injured in an accident or becomes seriously ill, you can blame outside forces.  With addiction, though, there’s a certain amount of choice involved.  We feel Sheff’s anguish, frustration, impatience, and finally resignation over the lying, stealing, arrests, rehab, and all, over and over again.  If you’ve ever loved an addict, you’ll be able to identify.  On the other hand, you may wonder whether this family had more privilege than they could handle.

Then we have Tweak.  This is a book of a different color.  (In fact, in the editions I read, Beautiful Boy was white and Tweak was black).  The first thing I found interesting was that we recognize a few incidents from Beautiful Boy, only from Nic’s perspective.  The second thing was that Nic does not mention his father’s book (or his father much either).  Clearly, this is a stand-alone piece.  Nic Sheff writes about the appeal of the street life, what he loves about being high, and his self-torture over his pattern of throwing his life away whenever he finally gets it together again.  Again, for anyone who’s ever loved an addict, this book is an interesting look at the addict’s perspective.  Nic tends to valorize drug culture, romanticizing the lives of addict artists.  He also shows very little insight or compassion toward the family and friends he affects, focusing on how he essentially doesn’t want to work a day job and have a normal life like everyone else.  (He’d rather lie in bed with his girlfriend and watch videos all day, apparently – or so he says, repeatedly).  His attitude is particularly emphasized when he judges the counselors at his rehab based on their looks and their outfits.  Sheesh.  If you are looking for a book to use to warn young people off drugs, do not pick this one.

Neither of these books can claim to be the first drug-related memoir, by any means.  David Sheff’s Beautiful Boy is an unusually good one.  Nic Sheff’s Tweak will largely be read by readers of Beautiful Boy curious to hear from the other side.  His writing is readable, and a refreshing change from all that stream of consciousness that’s popular with younger writers right now, but Tweak lacks much of the insight of his father’s book.

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