Category Archives: Humor
The Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey
I read this book many years ago during a militant pro-environment, animal rights phase of my life. Much older now I decided to pick it up again and see if I feel the same way about now as I did back then. I can’t say that I do in exactly the same way, but I admit it did stir the desire I think everyone has, to get a hold of some cause and devote to it so totally that almost any action taken on its behalf is seems justified.
The “Money Wrench Gang,” was written by Edward Abbey, a noted militant environmentalist with anarchical leanings, in 1975, and is credited by some as the inspiration for the Earth First movement which gained a foothold in the 1980s. It follows the adventures of four restless, environmentally minded eccentrics; a mildly Libertarian surgeon and his nurse/girlfriend/companion, a Jack Mormon river guide with three wives, and a slovenly, profane former Green Beret and Vietnam veteran with the all time great character name of George Washington Hayduke.
Brought together on a guided river tour, the four bemoan a system that is increasingly destroying the remaining untouched open spaces in the American West. They decide the only way to halt its degradation is by hitting those who profit from it where they hurt – their pocket books.
Dubbing themselves the Monkey Wrench Gang, they embark on a campaign of direct action, destroying the implements used by the system to effect environmental destruction – road construction equipment, power lines, railways etc. All the while they manage to stay a step ahead of some of the cartoonishly funny law enforcement personnel looking to catch them. They eventually escalate their attacks in a way that has profound effects for their future and for their ability to keep up their campaign.
And that is as far as I go so as not to spoil it for folks who have not read it.
Abbey’s writing style is by turns straight forward and insistent, allegorical, and at times, particularly when describing the environment the Monkey Wrench Gang is trying to save, quite lyrical. The book is often humorous and ribald, even as it tries to make a serious point. The characters are colorful, bigger than life ,and boldly drawn by Abbey, sometimes to the point of absurdity. Still, the overall effect is really inspiring. And, it is never boring.
I am older now, and no longer see things as black and white (though the Age of Trump is sorely testing me there), so I don’t think tactics such as these are useful in real life. But damn, sometimes I really wish they were.
I really don’t know the best way to write about this book. As usual I don’t want to give away to many plot details for those that have not yet read it. In addition, it takes place in an environment that is completely foreign to my experience. I will do my best.
A Rage in Harlem takes place as you would expect, in Harlem in the 1950s. It is part mystery, part detective story, part black comedy and part farce. It centers around a character named Jackson who is a bit of a rube, and who despite the nastiness around him and a willingness to bend the law to get what he wants, is generally a decent person with simple motivations. He is an employee of a funeral home, but desiring more money to support his girlfriend, Imabelle who he loves, and about whom he harbors no doubts as to her sincerity in her feelings towards him, Jackson agrees to put his life savings into a scheme to raise ten dollar bills into one-hundred dollar bills. From there things go down hill for him.
After the failure of his counterfeiting scheme Jackson moves from disastrous decision to disastrous decision that only makes his situation worse. He robs his boss, steals a hearse, enlists the help of his junkie twin brother who impersonates a nun to make money, has two cops on his tail with the very cool names of Coffin Ed and Gravedigger Jones (protagonists in later books by Himes). seeks absolution from a preacher friend, and finds out Imabelle has been involved in a scheme of her own that Jackson was a pawn in.Yet no matter what happens to him, and no matter how far he sinks, Jackson never loses the certainty that Imabelle is in love with him and that somehow everything will work out. The story takes improbable twists and turns, is interspersed with brutal violence, darkly funny observations of life in Harlem and of the types of personalities that live there.
In the end, Jackson and Imabelle…well…I will leave that to you to find out…don’t want to give away any important plot details.
As a story I really quite enjoyed this book. But, as someone raised in a lily white suburb of Minneapolis the culture of 1950s Harlem is completely foreign to me, so different than anything I ever experienced in my own life, that I cannot help but think I am missing a whole subtext to this book that goes deeper than just the plot. I have to believe there is a social message Himes is trying to get across that I just am not able to tease out of the story. I am really afraid I am missing something important here.
It could be about race, but there were very few white characters in the book. One did get the sense from Himes’ descriptions of some of the locales in the story that there was an implicit negative comparison with white neighborhoods, and resentment at the way society had restrained black progress…particularly economic progress. I’m not sure, it is entirely possible this feeling of mine is just latent, liberal white guilt. In any case, I will spend more time trying to understand this aspect of the book as I would like to read his other works, but want to get the most out of them.
Oh well…I have finished the book but still feel like I have work to do to completely understand it. I actually listened to the audio version of this. It was read by Samuel L. Jackson who really made it a pleasure. He is very good at character vocalizations such that each personality was informed, at least a little bit, by his performance. His vocal characterization of a white police detective was particularly funny, only because it was coming from Samuel L. Jackson.
The Shipping News by E. Annie Proulx is a book I had never heard of until I started my Bucket List project. However, everyone I talked to about it seems to have read it. This realization reaffirms the necessity of my taking on this reading project. As with the other works of fiction I have read recently I am not going to go into a whole lot of detail as there may be a very few of you that has not read it.
In a nutshell, after a rough start I ended up really enjoying this book quite a bit.
The main problem I had at the beginning was the writing style. A lot of short clipped sentences with no transition between them caught me off guard at first. In some cases years in the life of the main character are related in less than 20 words. After a few chapters however I found myself getting used to the style, and by the end really enjoying how it made the story flow. Had I read Sophie’s Choice after this book rather than just before, I am certain I would have found the writing style in that work ponderous by comparison.
In the end this is a lovely story of a man, generally a failure, who finds himself and his niche in life by moving to Newfoundland – the ancestral home of his family. There he finds his place in life living among a very quirky and eclectic group of people.
The author stated in an interview the inspiration for this work was a book about knots…specicially knots used by those whose livelihood is based on the sea. Most chapters start with a brief description of a knot and its purpose; that description becomes the theme for what happens to the characters during its course. A very cool way to tell the story of the main character – Quoyle – whose name is a form of the word coil; an integral part of all of the knots described in the book.
If it sounds on the surface like this book recounts a sort of bland, feel good, “back to my roots” type story free from the tragedy and depravity that is endemic to our species, fear not…. Murder, rape, accidental death, crime and punishment are all a part of the story. Yet, by the end I think you will find yourself uplifted.
Bucket Source (National Book Award Winner)
Purchase at Amazon.com Here
A fun though slight autobiography of mathematician and prominent American atheist, Herb Silverman, who recounts his Jewish upbringing, his career as a mathematics professor, and his late conversion from an apathetic to activist voice for atheism.
Some of the most entertaining parts of the book involve his upbringing in a Jewish family, one which frowned on too much fraternization with gentiles and which certainly would not condone marriage outside the faith. Silverman ended up disappointing his parents on both counts. Though nothing particularity profound happened to him as he grew up in his average blue collar Jewish family, he developed an above average interest in both mathematics and in gently, but humorously challenging the norms he was expected to adhere too. Even as he entered academia he refused to conform too much, although he did it with such good grace and humor those he challenged couldn’t bring themselves to sever their relationships with him.
He realized at a very early age he was an atheist. Like many who begin digging into the faith in which they were raised, Silverman soon realized what he was being taught did not hold up when subjected to the scrutiny of reason. However, while he enjoyed his non-conformity on other areas, he maintained a kind of apathetic atheism, neither hiding it nor wearing it on his sleeve. It wasn’t until he had landed at the institution where he would spend most of his academic career – The College of Charleston – that he began to rebel against some of the institutional prejudice that existed against non-believers.
In 1990 he was persuaded to run for Governor of South Carolina primarily as a protest against a state law that prohibited anyone from holding public office who did not profess belief in a supreme being. Despite being clearly unconstitutional, violating both article 6 and the 1st amendment, no Republican politicians in the state, including Governor Carroll Campbell, would speak against it. On the contrary, they defended the law. Eventually, due to unethical political pressure Silverman was removed from the ballot before his challenge made it to court. By the time it did the court refused to rule arguing he no longer had standing.There was one more office he could pursue however.
The law preventing non-believers from holding public office also included Notary Publics, applications for which were routinely approved. Silverman paid his $25 expecting the state to tacitly admit the law was unconstitutional by approving his application. When Governor Campbell rejected the application, Silverman with the help of the ACLU eventually got the law declared unconstitutional by the state Supreme Court and the law was invalidated.
From that time forward Silverman increased his activism, eventually speaking on the subject, debating prominent theists, and helping to form the Secular Coalition for America.
What is fascinating about Silverman is that he seems to have a way to disarm those who disagree with him, with humor and a genuine interest in the views of others. He is not afraid to disagree, but he is never disagreeable which I think increases the persuasiveness of his message.
The book is not perfect. He seems to take great pleasure in discussing every aspect of his sex life, which started slow but eventually picked up steam. A little too much discussion for my taste. Though his recollections of the many debates he has engaged in are very entertaining I find it a bit hard to believe he outclassed his opponents as much as he describes. In fact I watched a couple of these and though he is certainly most persuasive on the facts, his debating style was sometimes not up to the challenge. And near the end it devolves from autobiography to lesson plan, first on how to deal with non-believers, and then on the beauty of mathematics (interesting but out of place).
Overall a very easy and entertaining read…definitely recommended.
Bucket Source (Hugo Award for Best Novella)
Purchase at Amazon.com Here
Very enjoyable. A mix of irreverent humor, spot on satire, and some really devastating observations. And, it makes a serious case that the South is culturally, economically, and politically different from the rest of the country, how it is holding back progress, and why secession might actually make sense.
If you are a died in the wool southerner you will not like this book…some of it is pretty devastating IMO.
Not perfect by any means, but…it makes you think!