Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Rich Stories

Tenth of December by George Saunders
Reviewed by Diane K. M.
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

I like reading short stories but I hate writing about them. A short story is so fleeting and ephemeral -- it's like trying to describe a cloud.

This collection of 10 short stories by George Saunders is especially difficult and elusive. His writing is rich and visual, but there is always danger lurking for each character. I had to take a pause break after finishing each story because I felt so unsettled.

My favorite stories were "Victory Lap," which involved two high school students and a traumatic incident; "Escape from Spiderhead" about a prison inmate who is enrolled in a chemical testing study; "Puppy" about two women trying to make the right choices for their children, albeit in very different ways; and "Exhortation," which is a company memo written to boost employee morale in a challenging job.

I wanted to read this book because of a fantastic article written about Saunders in The New York Times earlier this year. That article references a lovely convocation speech he gave, in which he advocates for treating others more kindly:

"What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness. Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering, and I responded…sensibly.  Reservedly.  Mildly.

"Or, to look at it from the other end of the telescope:  Who, in your life, do you remember most fondly, with the most undeniable feelings of warmth? Those who were kindest to you, I bet.

"It’s a little facile, maybe, and certainly hard to implement, but I’d say, as a goal in life, you could do worse than: Try to be kinder."

Hotel Clerk Tells All

Heads in Beds by Jacob Tomsky
Reviewed by Diane K. M.
My rating: 3 out of 5 stars

In this Age of Memoir, I guess we were due for one by a hotel clerk.

Jacob Tomsky's book focuses on his experiences working at two hotels: a luxury one in New Orleans and a Midtown one in New York. (All names have been changed, so there's no point stating them. He even changed his own name in the text to Tommy/Thomas.) In his introduction, he brags that he has worked in hotels for more than a decade and that he's probably checked us in before.

Jacob/Tommy/Thomas promises to give the reader advice on how to get the best deal and the best service, which I will summarize for you: Tip the front desk clerk when you first arrive. This may get you a room upgrade, free movies, a late checkout time, etc. BOOM! I just saved you 240+ pages.

OK, so there's a bit more to it then just sliding a $20 to the clerk. He also recommends being nice to the staff -- which is generally a good policy to live by -- but in a hotel, if you manage to piss off the wrong person, you could end up with a string of annoyances, such as getting a room near a noisy elevator, getting mysterious wrong-number calls, having your key card not work, etc. He frequently says that a hotel staff is like a family, and they will trade stories about the guests who are mean, and the ones who are nice. (So always be nice!)

Jacob/Tommy/Thomas has some decent stories about learning the hotel trade -- he started out as a parking valet, worked his way up to the front desk and later became a housekeeping manager -- but he comes across as an arrogant jerk, which made me like this book less. For someone who boasts that he has a philosophy degree and that he's wicked smart, he could be more philosophical in his attitude.

I used to be a hotel clerk, so I could relate to some of his stories. But there was so much padding in the memoir that this would have made a better essay in The New Yorker. It didn't need to be upgraded to a book.

One of the promotional blurbs on the back cover is from Elizabeth Gilbert, who wrote: "Jacob Tomsky is a star. The kid writes like a dream. Heads in Beds is hilarious, literate, canny, indignant and kind -- revealing an author who manages somehow to be both a total hustler and a complete humanitarian. I love this book. Keep an eye on this writer. I'm telling you, he's a star."

I agree with one word in that paragraph: hustler. Tomsky is a hustler. He even uses that word to describe himself in how he hustles for tips from guests.

When I started this book, I expected to give it a 4-star rating for Tomsky's fun hotel stories. But his arrogance and narcissism wore me down and I dropped this to 3 stars.

Masked Decisions

Masked Decisions: The Triangular Life of Dick 'The Destroyer' 'Doctor X' Beyer; From American Athlete to International IconMasked Decisions: The Triangular Life of Dick 'The Destroyer' 'Doctor X' Beyer; From American Athlete to International Icon by Vincent Evans
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When the wrestling bug bites, Dick Beyer takes his family on the road and wrestles in various territories. In Los Angeles, he gets saddled with a masked gimmick that he initially hates, only to use it to change the wrestling world on two continents...

Masked Decisions is the biography of wrestler Dick Beyer, aka The Sensational, Intelligent Destroyer, aka Dr. X. It had a few things going for it from the get-go. Unlike most wrestling biographies, it's not written in the first person and doesn't spend a lot of time talking about how great the Destroyer was. Secondly, it's pretty well written and feels a lot more professional than most similar books I've read.

As I've mentioned in several other reviews, I was a wrestling fan for the first three decades of my life. Still, I knew nothing about The Destroyer until I discovered the Legends of Wrestling card game. Since the Destroyer sounded like an interesting character and had a pretty good card, I figured he was worth learning more about. And I was right.

The book starts out with Dick Beyer getting The Destroyer gimmick forced upon him by booker Jules Strongbow, then flashes back to Beyer's early days as a high school and college athlete, building toward his dual career as a pro wrestler and coach of Syracuse's football team. While I loved that Masked Decisions unfolded like a story rather than a typical biography, this is where my first gripe reared its ugly head. It took close to 40% of the book to get to Beyer wrestling full time. However, it was interesting reading about him juggling his two careers and competing with Freddie Blassie, Ray Stevens, Illio DiPaolo, and others.

Once Beyer hits Hawaii and Los Angeles, things really start picking up. Beyer decides the mask seperates him from the pack and he plays the roll of an arrogant heel to the hilt, drawing crazy money considering it was the 1960's. He took on Freddie Blassie, declining legend Gorgeous George, and visiting Japanese wrestlers Giant Baba and Rikidozan, which leads to the Destroyer going to Japan and becoming a Hulk Hogan level of celebrity there.

Before Masked Decisions, I had no idea how much the Destroyer helped build Japanese wrestling, from helping Rikidozan draw amazing money, to helping Giant Baba hold things together after Rikidozan's untimely murder at the hands of the yakuza. There's a picture taken from directly over the ring of Destroyer with Rikidozan locked in his patented Figure Four Leglock, both men and the mat smeared with blood, that will stick with me for a while.

Destroyer's relationship with his family was another interesting part of the book. He raised his kids to protect the business but his travels eventually destroyed his marriage. There's a picture of him in public with his kids also wearing Destroyer masks that I quite liked.

The book chronicles Destroyer's career right up until his retirement in 1993, handing the mask over to his oldest son. All in all, it was a pretty enjoyable read.

Still, it wasn't perfect. Like all wrestling books, there was too much pre-wrestling backstory for my taste and not nearly enough road stories, although Harley Race driving drunk at 100 miles per hour is becoming a wrestling biography staple. Also, the tone was a little weird. It didn't pretend professional wrestling was legit but it didn't go very much into the inner workings other than Destroyer's clashes with promoters. It was pretty good but not in the upper echelon of wrestling books with Pure Dynamite: The Price You Pay for Wrestling Stardom, Terry Funk: More Than Just Hardcore, or Wrestling at the Chase: The Inside Story of Sam Muchnick and the Legends of Professional Wrestling. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

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