Category Archives: Book Reviews

Comedian Stanhope’s New Memoir Unsurpassably Funny, Weirdly Touching

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Many of longtime standup comedian Doug Stanhope’s lazy-ass fans, like my wife, will want to know if his new memoir Digging Up Mother: A Love Story from Da Capo Press is as funny as one of his standup performances. The answer is no. It’s much funnier.

I should confess—this review, while 100% genuine and inevitable, is first and most importantly a cheap ploy to try convincing Doug to read my forthcoming memoir Rebel Hell: Disabled Vegan Goes to Prison and hopefully provide a blurb and maybe even a little review if he likes its dark, depraved, shameless humor as much as I think he will. Maybe we can even do some readings/book signings together!—if you’re not gonna dream big as a writer, might as well quit now. Also I took (prescribed) Ritalin to help me concentrate enough to write this—if you’ve taken ADD meds you know why this matters.

With that out of the way, Digging Up Mother is fantastic. The humor lives up to Stanhope’s reputation for brazen, even blithe twistedness. The book describes his hilarious lifelong penchant for schemes, scams, pranks, and general tomfuckery, detailing literally dozens of them. The biggest laugh-out-loud sequence for me had to be his wedding day. His bride Renee got so hammered beforehand that her friends gave her ecstasy just to keep her standing. The best man was selected using video poker. Stanhope hired a “graphically obese” Elvis impersonator called Extreme Elvis. After the ceremony, most of the band stripped naked while performing, including Extreme Elvis—who urinated into a pint glass then guzzled it down, and plucked a backup singer’s tampon from her vagina and then chewed and spit it toward the fleeing audience. “The quality of the musicianship was being overlooked,” Stanhope writes, “people focusing more on Elvis jamming two fingers up his own ass, then sauntering through the crowd, crooning while he gently swirled those fingers in their drinks” (234).

Through it all, Stanhope somehow manages to touch the reader with surprising poignancy. Partly via his and Mother’s relationship and her supportiveness. Even when he was just the troublesome class clown: “Mother saw my humor and creativity . . . I was fortunate enough to have a parent . . . allow me the freedom to follow my own path” (29). Indeed, Stanhope makes clear that without her cheering him on, he may never have stuck with comedy. “She was my rock and my muse and my only fan that mattered” (162). Then there’s his doting affection for longtime girlfriend Bingo, a schizoaffective bipolar. Her mental illness—she once walked down the street naked in midday while talking into a banana, legitimately thinking it was a phone—doesn’t detract from his fierce love. “I wish my vocabulary held a better word than ‘love’ for all of the emotions I felt about her, how she made me alive. They don’t live in a thesaurus” (271). Digging Up Mother’s juxtaposition of the repulsive and the beautiful is exquisite.

The writing on a barebones level is top-notch. Dark little gems are peppered throughout the narrative, like “Anyone who says that suicide is never the answer hasn’t heard all of the questions” (179) and “Children are abhorrent to me and I believe abortion should be mandatory” (228). Though I’m sure he had a great editor, his narrative talents are abundantly evident. This is never a given—just because you can write an act that leaves audiences in stitches doesn’t mean you can write a book worth dogshit! If you’ve seen or heard his show Beer Hall Putsch, you know that Doug and Bingo helped guide Mother through her 2008 suicide as she quaffed Morphine and Black Russians, but his memoir fills things out superbly. Like how the mortuary people arrived the next morning and assumed Bingo, sprawled out on the couch in a Xanax- and booze-induced deadsleep, was the corpse—and went to take her body away. Nothing is sacred (nor should it be); Stanhope matter-of-factly writes of his limitations as Kevorkianist: “. . . the idea of holding up [Mother’s] deflated ass-cheek while she forces out a mushy yogurt turd . . . no” (4).

Doug Stanhope’s memoir is unquestionably one of the funniest books I’ve read. Its terrific writing and utterly unexpected emotional wallop make it that much better. I can only hope this isn’t the sole memoir he writes—I’m hooked. Read it with an unclenched sphincter and you will be too. Unless you’re a total pussy, of course.

Sitting front row at one of Stanhope’s shows at the Brea Improv in 2013, I offered him LSD during the show. I’m gonna go drop some right now to celebrate that I finally wrote this fucking review. I think Doug would be proud. Now he just needs to contact me about our epic mutual book readings!

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Review–“Revival,” Brand New from Stephen King

Stephen King has repeatedly lamented the fact that so many people tell him their favorite book of his, more often than not, is something from the 1970s or ’80s, like The Stand or The Shining or Misery. He’ll say something like, “It’s a little disappointing to discover so many people find your best work to be many decades past.” But I happen to feel he’s done some of his absolute finest writing in the last ten years or so! He’s my favorite author, and influenced me to become a novelist rather than a sports writer (starting at the tender age of 12—after I first read The Shining). I adore books from throughout his entire 40-plus-year publishing career.

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In any case . . . perhaps because of the near-fatal collision between his body and a speeding van in 1999, or maybe because he felt a kind of liberation after finally completing his enormously complex and nuanced masterwork—the seven-book Dark Tower series—I truly feel he’s produced some of his most beautiful and literarily relevant works in the latter stages of his writing life. Stuff like Lisey’s Story, 11/22/63, Under the Dome (my personal all-time favorite), and Full Dark, No Stars. And his newest offering, Revival (released just a couple weeks ago on November 11), is an entirely respectable overall addition to the fantastic groove he’s managed—some might say miraculously—to carve into his path the last decade.

Revival focuses on the intersecting lives of its two main characters. Jamie Morton spends most of his life as a kind of bohemian rock guitarist and a heroin addict. Reverend Charles Jacobs, Jamie’s childhood pastor, experiences an appallingly traumatic event; he then delivers a “Terrible Sermon” denouncing god and religion. Jacobs goes on to devote his life to studying and experimenting with electricity, striving for his ultimate goal of harnessing the “secret electricity,” which would create unspeakable power and danger. The plot is engaging and kept me on my toes. I found the romantic subplot beautiful, sweet, and surprising. King very accurately portrayed a multitude of things: the horrors of addiction, music’s power to bring people together, the clear evidence against a loving god, and how religion-based charlatans can use faith as a weapon to take advantage of the sick and/or vulnerable and/or gullible. My only real problem with Revival was I thought its climactic scene fell flat. That it suffered from a lack of the imaginative voltage King pumped into the rest of the novel. Even so, it was a worthwhile read. It’s far superior to Mr. Mercedes, his previous clunker of a novel, and the electric energy of Revival makes me even more disappointed that he’s turning the former into a trilogy. My score for Revival: 60/100.

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My Debut Novel Now Available in Paperback!

Click here to purchase in paperback or e-book via Amazon!

 

A legless veteran and his Vietnamese girlfriend embark on a cross-country journey through the dark heart of mid-1980s America to exact revenge on the loathsome Monsanto Corporation, whose Agent Orange decimated both their lives.

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From the illicit pharmaceutical underworld of San Francisco’s Tenderloin to the cocaine-dusted film set of amputee porn in booming Las Vegas; from the urban-industrial hideout of vegan militant black revolutionaries to a botched backyard lynching by Texas frat boys and the liberation of their chained, abused pit bull. . . Orange Rain hurtles from one stunning scene to the next, swaying between the hilarious and the hideous. Its humor is darker than the Marlboro Man’s coffee (and his lung cancer). A wildly twisted novel, but also one with undeniable heart and compassion. It is an ode to humans’ ability to endure in the face of horrific suffering. A celebration of feminine strength and spirit. You’ve likely never read anything quite like it.
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“The eco-warriors next door embark on a lightning round of vigilante justice. Orange Rain is what happens when the Monkey Wrench Gang goes Death Wish and moves from the scrubland to the streets. Literature that incites.” -Peter Young, former ALF prisoner, chief editor at Animal Liberation Frontline

Thanks to my wonderful, egalitarian, vegan-owned, Eco-conscious publisher Trebol Press for taking this on! www.TrebolPress.com

“Orange Rain is not a politically correct novel—which is why it is so appealing . . . [the main] character has a clear revenge mission he never wavers from. Revenge is exacted on more than one oppressor, including two different rapists . . . [It’s] the type of book that could never be published by a mainstream publisher, as they would be too afraid to touch the taboo subjects it contains. Jan Smitowicz’s first novel . . . is fast-moving, fun to read, and isn’t the same old tired thing we see coming from traditional publishers.” -Kimberly Steele, author of Forever Fifteen and other novels

“A compelling, fast-paced adventure through some of society’s most intriguing subcultures . . . filled with incisive political commentary. This timely and important novel is a must read for anyone concerned about the state of the planet, or simply looking for a good read.” -Camille Marino, former political prisoner, founder of Negotiation is Over and Eleventh Hour for Animals

“An exciting new author with a new voice to bring to the world of fiction. The literary world is in desperate need of more writers like him.” Veronica Rosas, playwright

Review: RANT by Chuck Palahniuk

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I enjoyed this book quite a lot more than several of Chuck’s other books. I’ve read seven of them now, and at first I was really into him (partially b/c my then-girlfriend was obsessed with him), but then I grew to dislike him quite a lot. Rant has instilled a shred of faith that some of his other books might be worth my time.

One problem I have with Palahniuk is the very idiosyncrasy that so many people love. To me it comes off as being way too forced, like he’s trying too hard to have a more distinctive voice instead of actually having a unique voice. Most notably when he jumbles syntax: stuff like, “The car, we all piled in.” I don’t like it. Not when he does it. David Foster Wallace pulls it off like a magician . . . Thomas Pynchon, Stephen King . . . it sounds natural when they do it, but forced when Palahniuk does. My biggest problem with his books, though, is that I think he’s not very good at plotting stories. The “back cover”-type material sounds fascinating on every single one of his books, but the actual plots often fail to deliver on the intrigue fostered by their premises.

With Rant, though, I think he overcame those prior deficits. I love how the story’s told in the form of an oral history, composed of “anecdotes” from dozens of extremely varied personalities who were somehow involved in the life of the subject—titular character Buster “Rant” Casey. This storytelling form aids in sort of facilitating Chuck’s syntactical and form-based idiosyncrasies. So instead of detracting from the novel, with this one they actually enhance the desired effect. Overall, the writing is sleek and efficient; the plot unfolds very organically and rather brilliantly, as little clues and details are dropped piece by piece from different character testimony and perspectives. It’s also one of Chuck’s more interesting plots, made even better by the fact that Rant manages to avoid (to a large degree) some of his pitfalls. I did feel the ending was anti-climactic. However, this time I think it was intentional—much in the way that Wallace’s masterpiece Infinite Jest has no real climax, but rather directs and suggests a cohesive ending that the reader has to imagine for herself—and I think, to my surprise, Palahniuk managed to pull it off. A good yarn, fascinating premises and follow-throughs thereon, and taut, compelling prose make it a book worth reading.

Score: 65/100

*FREE PROMO!* My Revenge Novel “Orange Rain”, Now Revised and Including Bonus Materials!

Orange Rain has been revamped: now professionally edited, with a new cover and bonus materials at the end!

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To celebrate this, I’m offering the book for FREE DOWNLOAD starting tomorrow, Tuesday, April 1 and ending Saturday, April 5, 2014!! After that, it will be available for the 50% reduced price of $2.99 for another five days!
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Click here to download ORANGE RAIN from Amazon.

 

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Max Wright is homicidally enraged with people who wrecked his life—people he has never met or even seen. The Vietnam War left him poisoned and cancer-ridden from the spraying of Agent Orange, legless, and addicted to heroin, forced to sell drugs to support his habit and suppress his pain. Now he’s kicked heroin, and burns for revenge on the loathsome corporation that manufactured Agent Orange.

With his Vietnamese ex-prostitute girlfriend Mai Linh, Max hitchhikes across mid-1980s America. Destination: Florida, where a university medical clinic is performing cutting-edge prosthetic leg implants. Only when he is able-bodied, Max reasons, can he attempt an attack on the corporation that ravaged his body, and decimated Mai Linh’s life. Hot on Max and Mai’s trail is Victor Wattana, the “Oriental Massage Parlor” owner whose money they stole and penis they snapped in half following a rape attempt.

From the illicit pharmaceutical underworld of San Francisco’s Tenderloin to the cocaine-dusted film set of amputee porn in booming Las Vegas, from the urban-industrial hideout of militant black revolutionaries to a botched backyard lynching by Texas frat boys, Orange Rain hurtles from one stunning scene to the next. It sways between the hilarious and the hideous, exploring myriad dark places in America where the two intersect. It is an ode to humans’ ability to endure in the face of horrific cruelty and suffering. A celebration of feminine strength and spirit.

 

NOTE: If you don’t have a Kindle, you can get the free Kindle app and read it on your phone or computer!

A Huey helicopter unleashing the “orange rain” on Vietnam.

WHAT READERS ARE SAYING ABOUT ORANGE RAIN:

Jan Smitowicz is the Hunter S. Thompson for a new generation, and ‘Orange Rain’ is every inch the mind-bending ride you would expect from such an author. I guarantee you’ve never come across a novel like this before. The pace is fast and the the language is both inventive and obscene . . . If you long for a world where despicable behavior has immediate and devastating consequences, Mr. Smitowicz has your order up.”
-A.F.

“I’m always up for a plot in which the little guy fights back against the big guy. And you can’t get bigger than Monsanto. Go, Max!…Rapists getting beaten. Poisoners getting poisoned. Dogs getting liberated. That kind of justice is always so cathartic. I don’t read enough of it.”  -J.C.

Orange Rain is fast-paced and exciting . . . a tale of pure beauty.”
-M.N.

“You must read this, my peeps. You must relish the dark humor, the excitement, predicaments, the shredding of evil entities, the endings that make the world go ’round. I don’t care how the academics describe this book – I’m doing it my way: you won’t be disappointed. In fact, you’ll be singing from rooftops. Oh, yes you will!”
-A.L.

A rollicking adventure in which a search for legs and revenge leads to a cross-country trip jam-packed with thrills, chills, and seat-of-the-pants escapes…Exhilarating, thought-provoking, and relevant, Orange Rain is worth your time!”
-J.

“I loved this book! I literally couldn’t put it down. It explores some really serious topics (veterans and PTSD, chemicals and the environment, fat corporate America) in a fairly dark but wildly funny twisted way that engaged me from the first page.”
-R.S.

Review: INHERENT VICE by Thomas Pynchon

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I’ve been trying so very hard to read and comprehend at least one book by Thomas Pynchon in the last couple years. His stuff is so intriguing, his style in another universe from most other writers, and his influence is monolithic. So I thought it was criminally negligent and lazy that I’d never read anything of his. It started in 2012 in prison: I tried to read The Crying of Lot 49. I only got about 40 pages in before I had to set it aside. I blame that more on my state of mind and the fact that Health “Care” cut me off ALL medications (I’m disabled with a nerve disorder which causes severe, constant chronic pain). Maybe it wasn’t the right place and time to trudge through the encyclopedic references and density of a Pynchon book.

So I waited until I got out, and eventually tried my hand at what’s considered his greatest masterpiece, the 1974 National Book Award-winner, Gravity’s Rainbow. Nearly 800 pages. Supposedly something like 400 characters. And 70 pages—that’s as far as I got before I was just too confused to continue. Mason & Dixon sounded cool, but it was about the same length, and written in the style of an 18th century British academic. NO THANKS! Finally I read Vineland, and actually managed to finish it, mid-2013. The problem was, most of it flew over my head. Three-fourths of the time, I had no idea what was going on. After that I tried to read his first book, V., and I got 250 pages in, but I just found myself lost, confused. Another set-aside.

That’s why it was so great to finally start reading his 2009 novel, Inherent Vice. It takes place in late 1960s Southern California. That alone gave it a great amount of intrigue—I’m fascinated by the hippie era. And I grew up in SoCal, so that was just icing. This was definitely, by FAR, Thomas Pynchon’s most accessible book. Normally I can’t stand genre fiction; this is definitely a mystery/detective-type book, written in the genre style on purpose; the only thing that saves it from being genre drivel is Pynchon’s writing. It’s crisp and snappy. His style makes even the most prosaic situations—getting stoned and ordering a pizza, say—crackle like a live wire. It’s a pretty humorous book. I laughed out loud numerous times; a difficult thing for any book to achieve. The only real problems I had with the book were its very ties to the genre in which Pynchon is dabbling. Too many characters, and too many of them are unmemorable; I’m getting the feeling that, with Thomas Pynchon, you just have to throw up your hands and let him take you where he might. Score: 60/100.

Review: OPERATION BITE BACK by Kuipers

This biography came out several years ago, but it’s a massively important book; Coronado is one of the most courageous, inspiring, and effective activists this Earth has ever had!

**Note: article originally published in the Earth First! Journal under the title “Maximum Instruction, Not Minimum Adage.”

(For those not as obsessed with puns as I, but still interested, this one must be explained, because it’s very obscure; one of Rod Coronado’s (in)famous adages was “Maximum destruction, not minimum damage.”  So yes, I made a pun out of that in a way that actually fits. BA-ZING! 🙂 )

Operation Bite Back by Dean Kuipers is a biography of longtime Animal Liberation Front (ALF), Earth First!, and Sea Shepherd activist Rod Coronado.  More specifically, it is a detailed description of his campaign to cripple the United States fur industry, and the radical environmental and animal rights culture out of which it arose.  Many of us know the generalities of what occurred during that time period.  But OBB gives us a whole new dimension of detail and flavor.  This alone makes it worth reading.

In it, we get to experience a level of complexity of emotion, as well as context, that is largely unavailable anywhere else.  I have read Memories of Freedom, the zine written if not exclusively by Rod, then with the assistance of other ALF comrades, and his own zine written during his four-year prison sentence, Strong Hearts, a number of times.  So I was already quite familiar with many of the events as described by the actual participant(s).  Even so, these descriptions had to necessarily leave out a lot.  So instead of the near-fearless bravado of communiques and zines, we see the full anxiety and trepidation experienced by those activists.  We find out about how the passion and fury and intimate knowledge that drove Rod to commit these audacious acts also drove him to bouts of recklessness, bouts that could have and sometimes did contribute to his eventual capture by the state.

That’s right.  Even the great Rod Coronado, one of the most successful and revered direct action activists of the 20th century, committed serious breaches of security culture.  OBB, then, is required reading for anyone interested in using direct action, or in being an ally to those who do.  We can all learn a lot from it.

Rod in his native southwest desert.

That is not to say Kuipers’ work is not without some serious problems.  Journalistic objectivity certainly has its place, but sometimes it’s okay to have a little bias—speaking as a person heavily biased toward life and the continuation of it here on this beautiful little blue gem.  In fact, if anything, the author is at times biased against Rod and his partners-in-righteous-crime.  He falls over himself a number of times to defend the hideous animal experiments performed by some of Rod’s targets.  In true “objective” fashion for a mainstream media journalist (Kuipers, after all, is an editor at the Los Angeles Times), he implies both that the experiments performed actually have application for humans, and that they are intended to and will in actuality help animals.  For anyone with half a brain and/or a third of a conscience, this is a nauseating and ludicrous premise.

He makes a number of factual and logical mistakes that only an outsider—and a negligent outsider, at that—could make.  These are so numerous and weighty that it almost seems as if they are done to intentionlly discredit a section of the radical environmental and animal movements.  For example, he mentions a car bombing done allegedly by the Animal Rights Militia in Britain during the 1980s.  He comes out strong against it, saying it is reprehensible violence and “murderous” (44).  What he fails to mention until several chapters later is that this car bombing has been widely discredited, and is now believed to have been the work of provocateurs.  Convenient ommission.  Similarly, he totes the mass media and vivisection industry’s rhetoric in calling the 2008 firebombing of a UC Santa Cruz vivisector’s front porch “attempted murder.”  Something tells me if those responsible were attempting to murder the vivisector, they would’ve done a lot more than leave a molotov cocktail on a fire-sprinkler-equipped porch.  He brings up the incident in 1987 where, at a Cloverdale, CA sawmill, a tree spike snaps a saw blade and severely injures the mill worker.  He does not mention that this tree-spiking was almost undoubtedly not done by an environmentalist, and therefore proper precautions were not taken.  Another convenient ommission used to discredit eco-radicals.  He calls Murray Bookchin a “green anarchist,” a laughable and foolish claim to anyone in the know.  Additionally, he revels in the fact that he’s witnessed Captain Paul Watson of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society chowing down on steak a number of times.  Yet these days the lovably rotund Watson travels around the world heavily (no pun intended, ha!) promoting veganism for environmental reasons, and all current signs strongly suggest Watson now maintains a vegan diet.  Clearly Kuipers’ is speaking from very outdated experience here.

Despite these serious problems, Operation Bite Back is overall a very well-researched project.  It contains a bevy of information that is both interesting and very useful to all in the radical environmental or animal liberation community.  Read it with a dash of proverbial salt, but read it nonetheless. Score: 85/100.

Demonstrating the best way to consume one of his longtime favorite beverages.