The Donut Legion by Joe R. Lansdale
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I want to love Joe R. Lansdale. I really do. The fact that Lansdale essentially invented the modern "Weird Western" genre with Dead in the West makes him a true visionary - albeit one with a pension for the brazenly bizarre. Plus, he wrote Bubba Ho-Tep, the source material for one of the more fascinating entries in Bruce Campbell's filmography. Despite his plethora of creative ideas, however, I find myself routinely disappointed in his execution. Alas, The Donut Legion is no exception.
When I stumbled across The Donut Legion on cloudLibrary, I was thrilled. After all, this book has three of my favorite topics: donuts, cults, and aliens. What's not to love? Before reading the first page, I had visions of Lansdale bending the rules and blending genres like he's done so many times before. Much to my disappointment, the book that I envisioned in my mind was infinitely more memorable than what the author ultimately crafted. Bummer.
The general gist of the novel is as follows: Charlie Garner, a moderately successful writer with prior experience in law enforcement, searches for his MIA ex-wife after a ghostly visit in the middle of the night. Charlie's ex-wife, Meg, has become mixed up in the goings-on of a local doomsday cult known as the "Saucer People" - an organization that operates a chain of donut stores while waiting for salvation via the imminent return of space aliens. Imagine Krispy Kreme run by L. Ron Hubbard, and you've got a pretty good idea of Lansdale's premise. As Charlie delves deeper into the Saucer People, he recruits a colorful cast of characters for assistance: his bodybuilding P.I. brother, Felix; Felix's brilliant lawyer girlfriend, Cherry; and a would-be investigative reporter, Amelia Moon (who goes by the nickname "Scrappy"). The main villain of the novel is a preternaturally tall murderer known as "Cowboy," who parades around town accompanied by a leashed pet chimpanzee (which, Charlie frequently reminds us, is not a monkey). True to type, Lansdale once again walks the fine line between bold and bizarre, conjuring characters that are truly unique to his oeuvre. If nothing else, at least the author has that going for him.
While Lansdale does retain his irreverent humor throughout The Donut Legion, the book is decidedly less supernatural/otherworldly than I had hoped. Doomsday cults have been addressed in a variety of novels (Eden West, Agnes at the End of the World, and Lovecraft Country are among my favorites), but the genre is ripe with possibilities. The cult at the heart of The Donut Legion is a mashup of Heaven's Gate and the Church of Scientology; however, Lansdale fails to imbue the Saucer People with the earnest devotion of the former or the political power of the latter.
Even if The Donut Legion doesn't live up to expectations, I'm confident that this entry into Lansdale's catalogue will satisfy his quirky fanbase. It's just a shame that Lansdale didn't embrace his inner X-Files aficionado and let loose with his supernatural stylings. If he had done so, The Donut Legion might have elevated its status to a more uniquely satisfying treat - something akin to Voodoo Doughnut, rather than the generic sweetness of Krispy Kreme.
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Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman--Including 10 More Years of Business Unusual by Yvon Chouinard
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Yvon Chouinard's Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman is a powerful - but challenging - examination of humanity's complex relationship with the environment. Though I'm not a Patagonia fanboy (I own exactly one piece of Patagonia apparel), I'm incredibly proud that this forward-thinking organization was founded (and still has its headquarters) in my hometown of Ventura, California. Regardless of my biased hometown pride, I'm still massively impressed by the unique and "unusual" business practices discussed in Let My People Go Surfing: Yvon Chouinard has created a successful business model that simultaneously maintains exceptional profit margins while keeping its promise to heal the environment.
Throughout the book, Chouinard recounts his personal exploits and adventures, going to great lengths to examine his failures as well as his successes. Though his writing lacks the poetry of Rachel Carson or John Muir, Chouinard's personal history is fascinating enough to drive the narrative forward like trout in a raucous river. I admit that I'm a layman when it comes to the private sector (and to the magnitude of humanity's destruction of the environment), so this book was absolutely revelatory for me. Hopefully, Let My People Go Surfing will inspire others to examine the global economy's environmental impacts - and to make the kinds of dramatic changes necessary for the Earth to survive.
Recently, well after the publication of Let My People Go Surfing, Chouinard made the bold move to transfer ownership of Patagonia to non-profit organizations that are designed to preserve the environment. As the company's website now proclaims, "Earth Is Now Our Only Shareholder." While it's easy to dismiss the pie-in-the-sky goals of a rich entrepreneur who has more money than 99% of the population, this dramatic action illustrates just how much Chouinard practices what he preaches. Chouinard's integrity is on full display now, adding further credence to the environmental visions outlined in Let My People Go Surfing.
This hybrid biography/business textbook, while not for everyone, is a true catalyst for change. I might not have enjoyed Chouinard's writing as much as my usual literary fare, but I feel like the life lessons in Let My People Go Surfing might be among some of the most important pieces of wisdom I have culled from my reading in recent years. Even if the Earth isn't the "only shareholder" in my own life, I have a better understanding now of how my own actions affect our fragile world. Sometimes, those little ripples of knowledge can swell into something more profound and powerful, creating a force for change that will have a major impact on the future of our planet.
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Dickens and Prince: A Particular Kind of Genius by Nick Hornby
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Nick Hornby's newest book, Dickens and Prince: A Particular Kind of Genius is a compelling examination of two seemingly disparate figures of pop culture - icons whose lives share more similarities than one might assume at first glance. I should preface this review by stating that I would NOT have read Dickens and Prince: A Particular Kind of Genius if it had been written by anyone other than Nick Hornby. While I appreciate and admire Charles Dickens, I've only read a handful of his many, many novels. As for Prince... well, let's just say that I haven't spent much time engrossed in the catalog of his many, many recordings. So, while I respect Boz and the Purple One, I wouldn't pick up a biography on either artist - let alone one that compares the two figures. However, since I am a super-fan of Nick Hornby, I thought that I would give this unique book (about an even more unique pairing) a shot. And I am sooooooo glad that I did.
Hornby has a daunting task ahead of him: he attempts to raise Dickens from the soggy soil of musty English classrooms, while simultaneously trying to lasso Prince from the starry stratosphere. Somehow, Hornby succeeds in both endeavors, proving himself to be a talented artist in his own right. In his usual earnest, humorous, and self-deprecating fashion, Hornby plunges into the histories and masterpieces of these two inimitable artists - and the author's enthusiasm is absolutely contagious. Even readers with only a casual, passing interest in Dickens and/or Prince will find something to enjoy in A Particular Kind of Genius: both of Hornby's titular subjects led intriguing, heartbreaking, and (ultimately) inspiring lives, with triumphs, tragedies, and setbacks galore. Throughout his treatise, Hornby does everything in his power to celebrate the artistry of these two fascinating figures, organizing his book around central themes (including "childhood," "the movies," and "death"). At times, the book comes across as the most casual, conversational history textbook you've ever encountered; at others, Hornby uses his topics as springboards for more profound discussions about the nature of humanity and art.
Well-researched and eloquently crafted, A Particular Kind of Genius covers everything from The Pickwick Papers to Purple Rain, and treats A Tale of Two Cities and Sign o' the Times (as well more obscure titles from the back catalogue of each artist) with the same reverential respect. While this might sound like a tedious undertaking, Hornby's enthusiasm washes away any cynicism with a deluge of (purple) rain. Though I have a strong aversion to 80's music and stuffy British literature, I appreciate Hornby's honesty about the good, the bad, and the ugly creations of his two subjects. At one point, Hornby describes the 1980s as "the decade that taste forgot" - and that admission alone establishes his ethos and credibility (in my humble opinion, at least).
In the same way that Dickinson, Apple TV's hip genre-bending series, humanizes Emily Dickinson , so, too, does Nick Hornby elevate the status of his two subjects. Sparing no gory (or sexy) detail, Hornby's examination is everything that a music-obsessed English teacher (like yours truly) adores. And, while both the prodigious Prince and dutiful Dickens have celebrated, monumental back catalogues of material, it's Hornby's writing that steals the show this time. In the end, it's the author's enthusiasm that leaves readers feeling inspired - as if his readers can create their own future masterpieces. After all, if Hornby can make the author of Great Expectations and the singer-songwriter behind Purple Rain into relatable figures, anything is possible.
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Mild-mannered librarian by day… and a mild-mannered rock & roller by night.