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wescoat has commented on (4) products.

The American Dream: Walking in the Shoes of Carnies, Arms Dealers, Immigrant Dreamers, Pot Farmers, and Christian Believers by Harmon Leon
The American Dream: Walking in the Shoes of Carnies, Arms Dealers, Immigrant Dreamers, Pot Farmers, and Christian Believers

wescoat, December 4, 2008

I read Leon's first book, The Harmon Chronicles, in 2003, enjoying it very much. Back then, Leon was more prank-oriented and the pranks were very funny, like bringing a sock puppet named Mr. Cocksucker to a ventriloquism conference. He still has decent verbal comic timing, but he's no longer very conceptual, preferring now to simply mock subjects, who are generally too naïve, un-ironic, or uneducated to know any better. While "infiltrating" a celebrity impersonators' gathering, he does jump-kicks under a blond Austin Powers wig that barely hides his white-person dreadlocks. On the reality TV show Blind Date, he shows up wearing lederhosen. Naturally, Leon earns certain, sometimes amusing reactions from such behavior, but his shenanigans also send a clear message: The focus of American Dream is the crrraziness of its author, not probing insights into the lives of its unknowing participants.
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Zeroville by Steve Erickson

wescoat, November 13, 2008

Zeroville is what happens when a brilliant film critic writes a brilliant novel. Erickson captures the essence of '70s-era Hollywood in darkly poetic fashion, using the perspective of an odd, tragic cinephile named Vikar to reveal how movies shape our lives and how our lives shape movies.
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The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World by Eric Weiner
The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World

wescoat, November 5, 2008

Despite the fact Weiner (pronounced, "Why-ner," natch) writes prose that's about as sophisticated and artful as a nine-year-old's, he did have share some interesting things to say about happiness. Geography is essentially a travel book. Each chapter follows Weiner to a different country as he galavants about looking for "happy" places. He goes to Bhutan, Iceland, Switzerland, India, Thailand, and a few more, and finds varying degrees of happiness at each. I thought he did a good job of covering a diverse swath of places, and his depictions of some of the places I'd never even consider visiting were quite interesting. Qatar, for instance. Who would ever think to go to Qatar? But we forget that, thanks to its oil, it's one of the richest countries in the world. It's so rich, in fact, its government basically gives away free money to all citizens. It is a relatively new country that has come into its wealth relatively recently in world history, creating a sort of culture vacuum in which glittering buildings were erected and roads were paved with gold before any real culture had time to set in. The result is like a giant, really nice strip mall, populated by assholes in luxury automobiles who treat Starbucks baristas like their own personal slaves. Also, Weiner goes to Moldova, a neighbor of Russia that is, according to many "happiness indexes" and other bullshit studies and think tanks, one of the world's UN-happiest places. It pretty much lives up to its reputation, which makes for a pretty interesting chapter, since it is always fascinating to read about other peoples' misery.

So Weiner does a good job of sort of summing up the feel of most of his destinations, and of articulating the things that makes each one mostly happy or mostly not happy. America, for instance, is surprisingly low in the happiness index, because we have developed this incredible expectation regarding our own happiness. We expect large and constant amounts of happiness, and when we don't get it, our unhappiness is exacerbated by the fact that we feel entitled to it. Other, less-expectational countries, like India and Thailand, think we're crazy.

However, while Weiner's book is mostly entertaining, it also feels a little vapid. This is in part thanks to Weiner's simplistic writing style, and it is also in part thanks to the fact he only gives ONE, pretty brief chapter to each place. On his website he claims he spent two years researching this book, and yet each chapter feels like he stayed about three days in whatever the destination is, then inflated his truncated experiences into something meaningful. Bliss is ultimately pretty shallow, and Weiner's endless attempts at wisecracking are at best worthy of a mild chuckle, and at worst make him seem like an incurious, insensitive douchebag. He calls himself a "grump" in the book's title, but offers nothing about his life that might demonstrate such a claim. A correspondent for NPR, with a loving wife, a daughter, and a great career, it's hard to imagine him as unhappy, and he does little to convince us otherwise. He's a good reporter but not much of a writer.
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Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert
Stumbling on Happiness

wescoat, October 28, 2008

This was a book-length tome that should have been condensed to an article in the New Yorker, though I'm not sure the New Yorker would have put up with Daniel Gilbert's relentless affinity for cheesy jokes. It is not a book about how to be happier, which to be fair, is made clear in the opening pages. It is a book about what makes us happy, or better, how our endless quest for happiness is skewed by our silly, silly brains. It's an interesting premise, I guess, a study of how our inability to truthfully evaluate the past, present, our future prohibits our happiness, but Gilbert's manifestation of it is surprisingly tedious. His writing is so asinine and willfully goofy, "Stumbling On Happiness" should have taken me 2 hours to read, but it took me weeks in actuality because it was so annoying to keep returning to it. I'm one of those compulsive readers that has to finish every book I start, even when I don't like it, and I think that trait, more than anything, hurts my chances at happiness, at least in regards to this one. "Stumbling" is a bad example of a bad writer combining his badness with many, many, tedious references to other studies and writings done by other people who are not him. Really, this book is a gathering of research, and while I'm impressed with how much Gilbert must have had to sift through (no doubt with help from tons of assistants) to sort it all out, the end result is neither enlightening nor entertaining. I don't know what I was looking for going in, but it wasn't this. the book was recommended by an 18-year-old coworker, who said it was "amazing." I've learned to no longer take book recommendations from teenagers, and I've learned that I don't care enough about happiness to read a whole book about it. I guess I'm just a morbid guy. Or maybe I'm a happy guy. If anything, Gilbert's book has shown me that really, deep down, I'm neither, and never will be.
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