Lawrence Wright’s Going Clear Is 500 Pages Of Batshit Insanity

25 Mar

51vFPxEaajL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_It would be difficult to overstate the number of unhinged anecdotes that appear in Lawrence Wright’s 2013 book, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief, or in the HBO documentary adaptation that premieres on March 29. There’s the time David Miscavige, the current leader of the church, conducted a game of musical chairs among officers—to the soundtrack of Queen’s greatest hits—telling them that all but the winner would be shipped off to remote Scientology bases. There’s the time L. Ron Hubbard, Scientology’s founder, claimed to have access to an underground space station north of Corsica. And, of course, there’s Tom Cruise. So much Tom Cruise.

Born of interviews with 200 current and former Scientology members, Wright’s Going Clear details Scientology’s 1950s origin story through its present-day troubles, and earned him “innumerable” threatening letters from lawyers representing the church. HBO’s documentary, directed by Alex Gibney, covers a decent portion of Wright’s book, and features interviews with ex-Scientology members that include screenwriter Paul Haggis (35 years in the church) and actor Jason Beghe (13 years), as well as former Scientology higher-ups like Spanky Taylor, a member for 17 years who was John Travolta’s onetime point person; Mike Rinder, church spokesman from 1982 to 2007; and Hana Eltringham Whitfield, a founding member of the Sea Organization (Scientology’s clergy of sorts), who left the church in 1982 after 19 years.

“My goal wasn’t to write an exposé,” Wright tells Gibney early in the documentary. “It was to understand Scientology…. I was interested in intelligent and skeptical people who are drawn into a belief system and wind up acting on those beliefs in ways they never thought they would.” Continue reading

Dear Chimamanda, Americanah Is Great (Also, Sorry About White People)

12 Mar

51mSJNECGyL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_There are few ways to feel whiter than to read a novel written from the perspective of a Nigerian woman who moves to America and discovers how it feels to be black.

More than a decade after coming to America from Lagos, Nigeria, Ifemelu has it pretty good. She’s got a fellowship at Princeton and a handsome professor boyfriend, and makes a decent living writing an anonymous blog about race in the U.S. But Ifem is plagued by thoughts of her past, both in a macro sense—could the only thing righter than leaving Nigeria be going back?—and in a literal one: Ifem’s teenage sweetheart ex, Obinze, is still in Lagos. Granted, he’s married now, but she finds herself thinking about him all the same.

If this sounds like a worldly set up for what is otherwise a traditional “guy meets girl, guy fucks it up with girl, guy and girl eventually reunite” love story, it isn’t. The story of Ifemelu and Obinze is at once traditional and not, and overall far more emblematic of the complications of uprooting one’s life for the ephemeral promise of America than it is of a humdrum long-distance romance. This is not Nicholas Sparks goes to Africa. (Besides, we all know Sparks only writes about white people.) Continue reading

The Girl On The Train Is Gone Girl’s Brother From Another Mother

3 Mar

w544850Gone Girl is like the Uber of popular fiction—it became huge very quickly, lives up to its hype and now serves as a linguistic benchmark for equivalent genre-defining success. Seems every new thing is the Uber of something now. Likewise, every best-seller whose plot is even vaguely mystery-adjacent seems now sagely tallied in the column “Gone Girl Afterglow,” a category of books defined by our apparent lingering fascination with sultry whodunits whose screenplay adaptations may or may not include brief glimpses of Ben Affleck’s penis.The Girl on the Train has, in short order, joined that column—it’s been at the top of the fiction lists for weeks. But in this case at least, the comparison is apt. Which is all a long-winded way of saying: If you liked Gone Girl, you will absolutely like The Girl on the Train.

In a recent NYT interview, Richard Price said of books he loved: “I didn’t read them; I snorted them,” which strikes me a great way to describe a page-turner. To be sure, I snorted TGOTT, just like I snorted Gone Girl. And TGOTT’s plot is similar: Every day from the window of her commuter train, Rachel catches a glimpse of “Jess and Jason,” a seemingly happy couple who live in a house not too far from the tracks. A down-on-her-luck alcoholic still mourning the end of her marriage, Rachel comes to emotionally rely on her J&J sightings, which is why she’s shocked one day to spot Jess kissing another man. When Jess goes missing a few days later, Rachel is determined to suss out the culprit, while also trying to remember what, if any, part in Jess’s disappearance she may have played herself. Continue reading

Broken Monsters: Too Many Plots, Not Enough Monsters

17 Feb

books14f-1-webAt first glance, Lauren Beukes’s Broken Monsters has one of the most WTF magnetic plot summaries I’ve read in recent memory: “Detective Versado has seen a lot of bodies. But this one is unique even by Detroit’s standards: half boy, half deer, somehow fused together.” YES, Law & Order superfan me thought to myself at the bookstore. Yesyesyesyes.

Broken Monsters begins with the discovery of deer boy, but he is not the last human/imal corpse to be found among the ruin porn, working-class families and upstart artistic communities that constitute post-recession Detroit. The novel unfolds from the alternating perspectives of several residents of this busted city: Detective Gabriella Versado and her teenager daughter Layla; aspiring freelance videographer Jonno and his artsy girlfriend Jen; and street-savvy and world-weary Thomas Keen (d.b.a. “TK”), a homeless man with a fierce loyalty and a sharp intuition. Continue reading

The Martian Deserves Everything It’s Getting, Matt Damon Included

29 Jan

The_Martian_2014The most surprising thing about The Martian isn’t that it’s going to be a major Ridley Scott film starring [typecast?] astronaut Matt Damon in the leading role. Or that the novel’s author, Andy Weir, wrote some 350 page of extremely technical aerospace detail with little more than Google research. Or that he published the book himself through Amazon, where it is currently (having since been picked up by a major publisher) tooling around in the Top 10 science-fiction list. No, what’s most surprising about The Martian is that in spite of its Cinderella-story creation and enthusiastic technicality, in spite of its corny humor and disorganized pacing, in spite of the fact that it’s primarily narrated by one person who spends all his time completely alone, this is one of the most unique and excellent novels I’ve read in recent memory.

“The Martian,” in this case, is Mark Watney, a NASA astronaut (slash botanist slash engineer) who gets stranded on the red planet when a dust storm-related accident separates him from his crew, who assume him dead and have to get the hell out of Dodge (i.e. abort their mission). When Watney comes to—saved by a fluke congealed blood situation worthy of a reverse Darwin Award—he is left with the daunting task of figuring out how to survive on an uninhabitable planet until his only possible rescue: the next Mars mission, in four years.  Continue reading

Bird Box Is Creepy As Hell And I Like It

22 Jan

83296177dfebdbf60972d38be97824cfNo one is sure how it started. Or what started it. One day there was a report of a man in Russia who was riding in a truck with his friend. He asked the friend to pull over and then attacked him, removing his lips with his fingernails. A few days later, another report: five thousand miles east of St. Petersburg. A mother buries her children alive and then kills herself with broken dishes. Then a video; a man trying to attack the videographer with an axe, and eventually succeeding. No one knows what spurs the attacks or why, just that people see something—just, something—and then violently murder those around them before killing themselves. The only way you can be sure to avoid catching it, whatever it is, is to avoid opening your eyes.

No it’s okay. I’ll wait while you shit your pants. Continue reading

A Brief History of Seven Killings: Not Brief, Includes About a Billion Killings

8 Jan

A_Brief_History_of_Seven_Killings.JPGTo go from reading A Brief History of Seven Killings to reading anything that isn’t A Brief History of Seven Killings is like running a marathon with ankle weights and then taking them off for a walk around the block. A challenging, sweeping, impressive novel, ABH7K is a mental and emotional workout. It taxes the brain and the heart—the former’s capacity for ensemble narration and multiple dialects, and the latter’s tolerance for brutality.

Spanning 1976 to 1991; Kingston, Jamaica, to New York City; ABH7K is a spiral of subplots and broader themes surrounding the (IRL) December 3, 1976 assassination attempt on Bob Marley, which took place two days before a free concert organized to foster peace between warring gangs (who were backed by opposing political parties, who were backed by—or opposed by—the CIA/U.S. government). At various points throughout the 70s and subsequent decades, we peer inside the heads of, among others, the gang members behind the shooting, a journalist hunting for the inside story, a Marley one-night stand desperate to get out of Jamaica, CIA agents stationed in Kingston, and a murdered politician narrating from beyond the grave. What emerges through these intertwined experiences is a window onto a cyclical power struggle of epic criminal and political proportions, a complex web of—to use the appropriate regional terminology—fuckery. Continue reading

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