Monday, June 22, 2015

Review: "Bluegrass Brawlers" by John Cosper

Anyone who knows me knows how much I love pro wrestling. It is no longer an interest to me, and is something akin to a way of life. I have traveled to both sides of the US to see shows with like-minded friends, and spent countless dollar on T-shirts, DVDs and PPVs. I have been a fan since I was 8, more than half my life, and will be one till I die. John Cosper’s book, Bluegrass Brawlers is a book written for people like me, filled with stories about the origins of the business I love, some grand and some not quite legal, about a place, Louisville, Kentucky, that is only a few short hours away from where I live. And while I love it, and most wrestling fans will love it, it, like many aspects of pro wrestling, doesn’t have a lot of appeal to those who aren’t fans. But I, and maybe John, are all right with that. Whether or not you are a fan, you have to recognize this book as a labor of love, tracing Louisville’s wrestling history all the way back to the turn of the century, where he recreates the first advertised wrestling match to take place in Louisville, which was, shockingly, an inter-gender match. He also discusses Ed “Strangler” Lewis, arguably wrestling’s first “character”, and his various feuds with stars from the area. The real treat here are the many stories that can be found in this book, from the first night Bobby “The Brain” Heenan had in the wrestling business, thanks to Indiana’s own Dick The Bruiser. But I will admit I’m guilty of having more fun with the more recent stories involving OVW, which was once WWE's developmental system, like John Cena’s (then called The Prototype) promo about a match with a peanut butter cup, and Kenny Bolin, a manager for the company and his brushes with greatness and odd character tics (I was told off-handedly by a friend of one very funny story, which I will not divulge the details of here). If you aren’t a wrestling fan, most of the things John talks about will make little sense to you, but if you are, you owe it yourself to seek out this treasure.

Rating: 4/5

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Review: "The Fight" by Norman Mailer

I re-read the introduction Dave Eggers wrote for Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song, and he says something that informs quite a bit about Mailer’s The Fight, an account of the famous Ali/Foreman fight in 1974, the “Rumble in the Jungle”. He says, of The Executioner’s Song, that it has nothing in common with the persona that Mailer built around himself and his writing life. That persona, while absent from that great, monumental book, is all too prevalent here, with the fight itself being little more than a backdrop for Mailer to talk about himself, and how, in some way, he is like both Ali and Foreman. Luckily, this book is nowhere near 1000 pages, being little more than an experiment in self-reflective sports writing that could have been done better by a writer who wasn’t as obsessed with himself as Mailer was. The setup of the book is quite simple: Mailer travels to Zaire to cover the sport, and uses his celebrity status to get in depth coverage of the events leading up to the fight, from training and sparring sessions with both fighters back in the states, and Ali’s trash talking poetry, while also talking to the people around each man, like Ali’s trainer Bundini Brown, a volatile, entertaining person, President of Zaire Mobutu , who sees the fight as a showcase of black honor, and Don King, whose first big promoting gig was this one. There are some entertaining moments, like when Mailer is talking with Don King about the books he read in prison, all with a mispronunciation of Nietzsche that had me rolling, and anytime Bundini Brown talks to Mailer about blackness. But it gets old pretty fast, as the actual fight is one of the least interesting parts of the book. I a lot of people try to discredit Mailer, since his views and behavior is very archaic right now, but he has written some great books that can’t be ignored or dismissed. But this is not one of them. 
Rating: 3/5

Monday, June 15, 2015

Review: "People Who Eat Darkness" by Richard Lloyd Parry

I have come to the conclusion after reading People Who Eat Darkness, Richard Lloyd Parry’s book chronicling the murder of a British girl in Tokyo, that I can’t read true crime books too often. This, and Blood Will Out (the last book that I reviewed) are fantastic, engaging and eye-opening, but they are also draining brutal experiences that can shake a reader to the core. They house within them harsh truths about the fragility of life and the total lack of closure that we all must deal with. No matter who goes to jail in cases like these, people like Lucie Blackman are still gone and are never coming back. They leave a lingering detritus of grief-stricken family members, unanswered questions and the threat of inescapable violence. And it can all happen to a normal person, and that very thought is nightmarish, and personally, not something I want to dwell on too much. But if you are going to read a book like this, and slalom down this rabbit hole, this book is among the best and most in-depth. Parry is not a detached observer of the crimes chronicled in this book. He not only wants to create a definitive text on such a crime as this, but, maybe, he hopes that it will shed light on a distinctly cultural problem in Japan, one that allowed such a crime to go unnoticed for so long, and will no doubt do the same thing in other cases much like this one.  The crime in questions involves Lucie Blackman, a young woman who found herself working at a hostess in Tokyo’s Roppongi district. Her job title was vague, but it consisted of her, for a lack of a better word, flirting with the male clientele, who were mostly Japanese businessmen, and making them feel good enough to become repeat customers. In July of 2000, Lucie tells her friend, Louise, that she is meeting someone, and she never comes back. From there, the story gets real dark and very nasty, dissecting a culture of Japan that allows for predators to hunt freely (with many pages dedicated to the list of perversions one can satisfy in the Roppongi district) without any interference from a Japanese police force that is equally careless and clueless on how to deal with such brutal crimes, with one footnote concerning how a family had to sit helplessly by and watch their son get murdered being particularly infuriating. Once a subject is arrested, it becomes obvious whose clutches Lucie fell into, a man who’s sexual and predatory urges seemed to have no limits. Parry discusses this, as well as the affect the murder had on the Blackman family, with the utmost respect for truth and justice while also never taking any sides once details emerge about the volatile nature of Lucie’s parents, Tim and Jane. This is a painful study on a cultural inclination towards violence, a broken system that is need of reevaluation, and the effect one’s person’s life has on many others. While never the most pleasant of books, or even most rewarding, it’s still a compelling, important work of art. 
Rating: 5/5

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Review: "Blood Will Out" by Walter Kirn

The first book in my non-fiction mini-break for the year is easily one of the best books I have read so far, and is for sure the creepiest since it is true. Walter Kirn’s self-eviscerating memoir Blood Will Out, about his friendship with a real life Thomas Ripley is the kind of haunting book that slowly, methodically sinks it’s way into the subconscious, much life a knife slowly puncturing the surface of your skin. It’s a nightmarish journey not only because it is true, but also because it is easily recognizable. We have all met someone like the “villain” of this book, a man who Kirn knew as Clark Rockefeller, and maybe even become friends with. He is someone who is entertaining to be around, has a strong presence and constantly makes you feel good about yourself. But all the while, you get hints about the type of person they really are. they aren’t dependable, they don’t have a lot of emotional depth or tangible personality, and you slowly realize the relationship has become parasitic, and you begin to question not only why they have this power over you, but why do you voluntarily give it to them, like Kirn did in this book. Granted, it is highly unlikely that the person in your life I am describing is as sociopathic as the one Kirn’s, but in just how malleable Kirn was in the process, and how it arose very simply, is the true horror and terror of this book. The book reads like a novel, that switches time periods; from the time Kirn first met Clark Rockefeller while on a cross-country trip from Montana to New York to deliver a crippled dog to him, to the time, almost a decade later, where Kirn found out that Rockefeller was really Christian Gerhartsreiter, a German immigrant with a history of false identities, forgeries and compulsive lying, after he is arrested and charged with a brutal 20 year old murder. The real curiosity here is witnessing Kirn’s look back on all the tiny details of Clark’s life that might have lead Kirn to his true nature as a con artist, such as the first time they met, and lowly sum he paid him for the trip, the false promises of meeting his personal friend, J. D. Salinger and the mysterious obsessions he has with Star Trek, global conspiracies and eventually, Kirn himself, all which tie into the murder Clark is accused of. I won’t reveal much else, but I will say that Kirn doesn’t let himself off the hook. He writes with a little bit of shame that he was so utterly gotten, despite his tumultuous personal life at the time. If I could pull a quote from this book that describes it perfectly, it is when a famous author gives Clark his opinion of the books he has written: “You’ve got industry, but you don’t have talent.” It can be taken in many ways, but the fact that someone like Kirn, Ivy League educated with a few novels under his belt, fell for Clark’s complex ruse, shows that none of us are safe against it. This is a cautionary tale with a silent vicious bite, and it never once failed to hypnotize me.

Rating: 5/5