Saturday, November 28, 2015

Completed: Fugitives and Refugees

Dear Jenny,

Well, we're into No [Wo]man's Land here, as this is a book that I did not preview. I mentioned it in my "Oh, crap -- what do I need to finish in 2015?!" post, but no full preview. I'm kind of glad I didn't, because I'd probably be mad to look back and see how excited I was to read this book.

Eh, who am I kidding? I'm still mad.

So... this book is written by one of my favorite authors about one of my favorite cities. Its subtitle is: a walk in Portland, Oregon. I love to walk! Especially in Portland! Sounds great, right? Until... it's not. Here's the book's description:
Want to know where Chuck Palahniuk's tonsils currently reside?
Been looking for a naked mannequin to hide in your kitchen cabinets?
Curious about Chuck's debut in an MTV music video?
What goes on at the Scum Center?
How do you get to the Apocalypse Café?
In the closest thing he may ever write to an autobiography, Chuck Palahniuk provides answers to all these questions and more as he takes you through the streets, sewers, and local haunts of Portland, Oregon.

According to Katherine Dunn, author of the cult classic Geek Love, Portland is the home of America's "fugitives and refugees." Get to know these folks, the "most cracked of the crackpots," as Palahniuk calls them, and come along with him on an adventure through the parts of Portland you might not otherwise believe actually exist. No other travel guide will give you this kind of access to "a little history, a little legend, and a lot of friendly, sincere, fascinating people who maybe should've kept their mouths shut."
What it also could have said was "a poorly written, pretentious, non-nearly-as-helpful-as-a-Lonely-Planet-guide to Portland, interspersed with ridiculous personal tales." That would have also been accurate.

Let me start with the very first line of the book:
"Everyone in Portland is living a minimum of three lives," says Katherine Dunn, the author of Geek Love. She says, "Everyone has at least three identities." [13]
So may I just begin this review by calling "bullshit" on this pretentious statement? Cause everyone I know is living a minimum of three lives. Granted, they might not seem as "glamorous" as those she names for example: "grocery store checker, archaeologist, biker guy" and "poet, drag queen, bookstore clerk." But good lord, most people I know are at the very least a spouse, parent, [worker], [hobbyist]. I'm a wife, manager, crafter, and reader (for a start). Bill is a husband, programmer, brewer, and hockey player (again -- plus more!) Get a grip on yourself, Portlander -- everyone everywhere is wearing a lot of hats.

Sooo... that's the opener. I started this book with a BAD taste in my mouth and, really, it never got better.

After that BS is a little "glossary of local terms," which is fine. I think it's also a little pretentious, but it's okay. There's some funny stuff like the statue Portlandia that is apparently nicknamed "Pull My Finger" because the figure is extending her index finger. I'm always a little skeptical about lists like these, but whatever.

And then we get... the first of a series of "postcards" from the author's life and wild times in Portland. Basically, little vignettes describing brief "true" stories that happened to him. I guess I'm supposed to be all, "Wow -- these stories are so crazy and even crazier cause they're true!" but really I'm thinking, "Bullshit. Bullshit. Didn't happen. Embellished. Made up. Bullshit." And maybe they aren't. Maybe the author has just lead a far more drug- and sexcapade-fueled life than I have and therefore, I cannot imagine these crazy things actually happening but... if all of this crap has really has happened to him, he should be dead.

For example, here is a summary of his first "postcard":

He's 19, he takes LSD and goes to the planetarium with friends. He grinds his teeth so hard that his back teeth are hot and he has that "burned metal taste you get having a cavity drilled." [27] His friend tells him to put something in his mouth to save his teeth (we're so high we're literally grinding our teeth off, but still stable enough to describe a solution that will rectify the problem? Sure.)  He puts what he thinks is his scarf in his mouth, but it turns out to be the sleeve of his neighbor's fur coat. And then... he proceeds to eat the sleeve, right up to the elbow. Yup. He just ate half of a sleeve of a stranger's fur coat without her noticing. Then they huff a cleaning solvent-soaked bandanna and run out laughing as the lights come up, before the woman notices.

Am I an old lady here, Jenny? Does this story not smack of straight-up BS? I just... why? Who is this story for? He was 41 when this book was published -- the same age that I am right now. So maybe that means it is all true and that's why the BS meter didn't go off for him when he jotted this down? Cause mine is red-hot and flashing. It sounds like a story that a 19-year-old would make up to impress other 19-year-olds.

Okay... maybe that's why he's calling them "postcards" -- like, they're written in the voice of his 19 year old self? Ugh. That's just embarrassing. Burn that stuff. Also... I just checked out the one from 2000. So he would have been 38 at that time and that story is also ridiculous and juvenile. So... nope. Just BS.

Interspersed with these unbelievable stories are unevenly written descriptions of things to do and see around Portland. From the book description above, would you think this is going to be a basic travel guide? Cause that's what it ends up being, except that it's not good.

I've got a problem with a print travel guide today anyway. This book was published in 2003, so I guess I can forgive it that buuut... if you're going to produce a print travel guide, how about some consistency with information about the sights? I mean, at least make that part of it useful.

Let me give you an example of the inconsistency -- there's a section about "strange museums not to miss." The first one is the Kidd Toy Museum. Sounds interesting -- gets a nearly three page writeup detailing the history of the place, how it got started, even some quotes from the founder. Great. Perfect travel guide stuff.

Second entry is this (in its entirety):
2. Stark's Vacuum Cleaner Museum
A few blocks north of the Kidd Toy Museum, don't miss the Vacuum Cleaner Museum. Kill a rainy afternoon here at 107 NE Grand Avenue, but don't forget to wipe your damn feet. [87]
Really? I mean, I guess that the feet wiping thing is funny, but I just read almost 3 pages of information on the first museum mentioned and this one... could really be a description for any museum on the planet ("Kill a rainy afternoon here"). What the heck is going on at this place? What will we see? I mean, I'm guessing it's vacuums, but after the detailed description of the first place, a bit more info would be nice (and expected).

Also, there is inconsistent inclusion throughout of basic info like addresses, hours open, contact info, cost, etc. It's ridiculous -- you put that crap at the beginning or the end of every entry and you include as much of it as you can. Come on, editor. This is basic stuff. This is a nit, I realize, but at this point, I'm fed up.

Aaand... there is no index. So even the few things that I thought, "Oh, that might be interesting to see next time I'm in Portland..." are basically lost in the mess.

The reason that the author thinks that Portland great is -- and he wants you to KNOW and UNDERSTAND this, Jenny --  that it's full of weirdos, doing weird things (pssst -- those are tasseled pasties on the front cover of the book -- oh my! How salacious!) Whatever. Plenty of people and places are doing that. That's not actually what makes Portland great.

Here's what I love about Portland: It's walkable (oh yeah -- I have no idea why the subtitle referred to "a walk" cause this book is not a walk at all), it's crafty/creative, and it's got the best damned bookstore in the world (which is only mentioned in passing as a haunted location). Other people also appreciate the natural beauty (it's very green and there's a river running through it) and the temperate climate.

Fine, there are weirdos. But if you have to keep saying, "Look at us! We're so weird and cool and kooky!" I mean... just... BE weird. I'll figure it out on my own. Don't keep telling me how damned weird you are and expect me to be impressed.

And if you do have to do that, well... Portlandia does it better anyway.



  1. Kelly,

    There is nothing worse than a book you thought you'd love that ends up being so...awful. And from an author you liked! And about a place you totally love! Ugh.

    I will say, since we have both lived a lot of places and in all regions, the mythologizing the West Coast does about itself is sort of amusing now that I've left. Like, sometimes people post pictures on FB of 3 Prius' in a row in a parking lot and say "only in California." And I'm hard pressed to say, "No. Really. That's everywhere." The truth is, you can find like-minded people anywhere you go! As you say, everyone is doing multiple things!

    Out of curiosity, did you find the title at all offensive? I mean "fugitives" and "refugees" are such loaded words these days (I guess it was 2003) and to find it was about white folks in Portland stroking themselves for being so awesome? Eww.

    That being said, I really did enjoy reading this review. It is a strange but true fact of book reviewing activities that a bad review is more fun than a good one.

    1. I am ashamed to admit that I didn't really give the title much thought in the context of today's world. I've had the book for a long time and it really just kind of reads like "Xes and Ys" to me. You're right that it's terrible. And Portland is so super white... anyone there calling themselves by those names is offensive.

      As for "only in California" -- yes! You can find like-minded people anywhere you go. Sometimes you have to look a little harder, but you'll find them.

      Flip side of that: Seems like everyone says "Oh -- sunny California!" whenever I say that I moved here from the Bay Area. I'm like, "No... kinda hazy. General feeling of 'is it going to rain today?' and... better take a jacket *everywhere* you go cause it will be cold when the sun goes down..." So, you know... gross generalizations -- it's what we're all about!

      And you nailed my true response to this book -- disappointment. I probably wouldn't have hated it so much if my expectations had not been so high!

      Flip side: My expectations for the DFW are soooo low. So it's gotta beat those! :)

      I have a challenge for us, Jenny -- write a review about a book that we *enjoy* that is as fun as one of the ones about the books we hate. Ha.

  2. I nominate this piece to the "cool people are everywhere" genre: