Finishing Mike Rensin’s All for a Few Perfect Waves (pages 336-448)

Thursday evening my kids had a friend’s birthday party, so I didn’t get back to Mike Rensin’s All for a Few Perfect Waves until around 10 p.m. I stayed up late reading (with a few beers). Then, Friday morning I finished the last few pages.

I still like Waves – I give it 7.5 out of 10. But I do have some reservations about the book.

Last Sections

Friday’s sections of the book were the least rewarding, covering legendary surfer Miki Dora’s life from middle age until his death. By the mid-80s, Dora had slipped into obscurity, living abroad and railing against what had southern California’s surf scene had become since Dora was a young man.

Dora’s obsession with the way that the “corporatization” of surfing had ruined the sport was an obsession. He presented the surf scene up through the 1960s as a Garden of Eden that had been irrevocably ruined by The Fall. Dora was particularly obsessed with surfers from the San Fernando Valley who came to the beaches to steal “his” waves. I found myself wondering if Dora’s lament was at bottom the usual sadness over lost youth.

What Was Left?

Author Rensin points out that Dora had painted himself into a corner with his rebel pose. By portraying commercialized surfers as sellouts, Dora created an appealing image. At the same time, he couldn’t capitalize on that image without ruining it.

Needing an income, Dora accepted an offer to join surfwear manufacturer Quicksilver as a paid schmoozer. Predictably, Dora and his admirers were ambivalent about this arrangement.

Rensin recounts an anecdote that reveals the contortions Dora went through to maintain his cool, detached persona. Back in the 1990s, documentary filmmakers tracked down Dora in South Africa and asked him to participate in a film. Dora encouraged them to bring their equipment to South Africa. But when the filmmakers returned, he refused to sit for an interview. Of course, this drove the filmmakers crazy.

Rather than leave them with nothing, Dora provided a visual by surfing as they filmed. At the end of the movie, one of the filmmakers approaches Dora who is sitting on the beach, hidden behind his board. Dora says something to the filmmakers, but it is inaudible in the film. In Waves, the filmmaker reveals what Dora said to him – “So, is this how the film ends?” (P. 356).

The End

On the whole, the final sections of the book are overly long. Rensin could have cut much of this material and improved the book. However, the last few pages are quite strong. Rensin recounts Dora’s death from pancreatic cancer in moving, well-chosen quotes from Dora’s friends and family.

No Easy Answers

As my previous comments on Waves indicate, I’m ambivalent about Dora. He was interesting, but he betrayed many people who were closest to him.

Waves concludes with reminiscences by many of Dora’s closest friends. One that shocked me was a remark by Miklos, Miki’s father – “He was a Nureyev on the surfboard. He was fantastic. But I have to be honest: Besides that, I think he was nothing. … Still, he was my son and I always loved him” (p. 430).

Waves is interesting, but it has it flaws, just like Miki Dora… just like all of us…

 

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Pages 195 – 336 of Mike Rensin’s All for a Few Perfect Waves

Wednesday’s sections of the Miki Dora biography dealt with Dora’s middle age. Predictably, the chickens come home to roost. In the late 1960s to early 1980s, Dora spent him time traveling the world to a) search for the perfect surf spot and b) evade criminal charges in the U.S. This section of All for a Few Perfect Waves is good, but the reader feels frustration with Dora’s poor choices and total self absorption.

“Miki was a chimpanzee on a motorcycle with a loaded shotgun” – Dora friend Allan Carter (p. 198)

One thing that I should have commented on yesterday was that Rensin’s book is an oral biography. This technique works well as it presents a kaleidoscopic view of a man who spent his life fashioning a cool pose that varied depending on his audience at the moment.

Also, the oral bio comes as a relief given that the sections Rensin writes are often overly flowery, attributing far more significance to Dora than seems merited. For instance, readers begin the book with a meandering, 24-page intro in which Rensin compares Dora to Muhammad Ali, Jack Kerouac, Jack Nicholson, James Dean, Marlon Brando, Bob Dylan, John Cassavetes, Cary Grant, Sid Vicious, the Flying Wallendas, Neal Cassady, Robin Hood, and Citizen Kane. By the time the oral part of the bio begins on page 25, the reader is ready to kiss Rensin goodbye.

Friends on Dora

Then the book gains momentum. Surprisingly, it is infamous rock promoter Kim Fowley (1939-2015) whose quote best encapsulates Dora’s life –

“Probably Johnny Fain [another surfer] and Miki Dora had great moments in a small window of time, and when that window of time passed, they didn’t break the pattern and reinvent. They stayed there, and that’s the tragedy. In life there’s hardly anyone who’s both charismatic and good at something. When there is, even for a brief moment, they’re one of the privileged. Like Miki, I had no idea what happened to him. All I ever heard was, ‘Oh, bad boy. Buccaneer Bandito stuff.’ I said, “Oh, good. Well, tragedy poster boy.” When you’re given gifts of male beauty and athletic prowess, then the world is your wastebasket. Even if you make mistakes, you look good doing it. It’s like waiting to see [punk musician] Johnny Thunder die onstage. People would go to see these guys fall apart. The rapid ascent is a turn-on, and the descent is equally fascinating. Miki didn’t so much reinvent as relocate. Yet here we are, all these years later, still talking about him” (p. 322).

To me, that’s a perfect summary of Dora’s life – awesome, almost legendary youth as a surf rebel, then a steep decline into a pathetic middle-aged crook scamming Social Security, food stamps, and the estates of deceased friends. Author Rensin labors to make Dora into more than that, but I felt that Fowley nailed Dora.

Sunset on the Water

So far, I give All for a Few Perfect Waves a 7.5 out of 10. Rensin had a great 350-page book. The problem is that All for a Few Perfect Waves is 444 pages long. The padding slows the book’s momentum and makes the reader wish that Rensin had an editor to trim the fat. Still, I’m enjoying Waves and recommend it.

 

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Pages 1- 194 of Mike Rensin’s All for a Few Perfect Waves

Monday I walked down the big hill by my house to the Mobile Public Library. I had my heart set on getting Barbarian Days by William Finnegan. Not only was it checked out, someone had put a hold on it when it’s turned in. Looking for another surfing book as an alternative, I came across Mike Rensin’s biography of Miki Dora, a surfing legend with whom I was completely unfamiliar.

After almost 200 pages, I have two contrary conclusions – 1) I’m really enjoying the book and 2) I’m not sure if it amounts to anything.

Dora – Larger Than Life

Miki Dora was a surf pioneer, a huge talent whose rebel pose, good lucks, and talent helped grow the sport. Dora fit in well with the emerging counterculture ethos of the 1950s and 60s – he rejected surf competitions, steady employment, and the professionalization of surfing. His edgy attitude made him more popular with surfing fans.

Rensin details Dora’s unique personality. He was magnetic, but detached from other people. Few knew where he lived and – despite his many girlfriends – he never married or had children. His economic circumstances were just as striking – he bragged that he never wanted to have a job (though he briefly worked from time to time). Instead of working, he sponged from friends and stole.

Through almost 200 pages, the book has held me. It’s easy to read and I’ve never been bored. Rensin deserves credit for explaining how surfing grew from a fringe past time to a major sport. Even better, he skillfully weaves Dora’s story into the bigger story of surfing.

Nagging Questions

For all of the book’s entertainment value, 2 aspects trouble me –

First, though Rensin tries hard, he can never provide a good answer as to why Dora matters. Rensin is aware of this and goes on long digressions explaining that surfing is matter of being in the moment, not leaving a legacy. While this may be true, it’s not enough justify 400+ pages of biography. Thus far, All for a Few Perfect Waves is a great escape, but (to quote Graham Greene) it’s just “an entertainment.”

Second, thus far, Rensin doesn’t explain what drove Dora. The book provides the details of Dora’s biography, but the reader wants to know why; simply stating that Dora remains a mystery is insufficient. This second criticism is more damning to Rensin than is the first. He bears no responsibility for Dora’s “live-in-the-moment” life, but he does owe it to his readers to provide more insight.

Difficult to Assess

So, after 200 pages, I’m torn. For entertainment, Waves is fantastic – a 9 out of 10. However, the reader wants better content and the unanswered questions cause me to rate the content no higher than 7 out of 10. I’ll split the difference and give it 8 out of 10 on the whole.

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Pages 190-231 of Arthur Lyons’ Castles Burning

Monday morning I made a mistake. I looked at some online blogs on Arthur Lyons’ Jacob Asch series. One of the sites that I read contained a spoiler, which put a major damper on the last 40 pages of Castles Burning.

Despite that, I thought that Lyons brought the book to a nice conclusion. I gave Castles Burning an 8 out 10 and recommend it. The book’s virtues are strong prose, vivid setting, and interesting characters.

Lyons uses the story to make many comments on the nature of southern California. His critical view is similar to that of other authors; at its worst, Lyons’ California is materialistic, shallow, and self absorbed. Even if the perspective isn’t unique, Castles Burning is well written and readers will enjoy the ride.

At the end of the book, I had my own “twist” ending. As many have noted about the Internet – anyone can post anything. The spoiler that I’d read about never happened. Apparently, the person who posted the comment misremembered the end of Castles Burning. So, I felt like Peanuts’ Linus must have felt after he sat in the pumpkin patch all night waiting on the Great Pumpkin.

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Pages 1-190 of Arthur Lyons’ Castles Burning

Sunday I had a long time to read and I started Castles Burning by Arthur Lyons. By bedtime, I had gone to page 190 (of 231). I wanted to finish, but sleep called me away around 11 p.m.

Castles Burning (1983) is one of a series of novels Lyons wrote about Palm Spring private eye Jacob Asch. Lyons was one of several authors who tried to update the p.i. Novel for a post-1960s U.S.

My copy of Castles Burning contains a blurb from The New York Times that favorably compares Lyons’ work to that of Ross Macdonald. That’s a good comparison – both Macdonald’s Lew Archer and Castles Burning deal with tangled family issues that arise years later when the bad decisions of the past come home to roost. I’m enjoying Castles Burning, but some dead spots cause me to lower my “mid-term” rating a bit to 7.5 out of 10.

Jacob Asch – Ironic Gumshoe

Our hero p.i., Jacob Asch is a man of his time, not the modern-day knight of Raymond Chandler, but a detached, ironic guy in a damaged world. As the novel opens the reader learns that Asch “…drove a ’67 Plymouth and used it to haul my own Jockey shorts to the laundromat” (p. 5). A few pages later, Asch reveals that he just squelched a palimony suit against a greedy, unethical art dealer. Asch fits in well with Jim Rockford and other low-rent p.i.s who are just trying to scrape out a living.

Lyons manages to lift Castles Burning above much of its competition through strong prose. He opens the book with a memorable passage –

The blonde was bent over the chair, precariously balanced on ten-inch platform heels, looking at me through her legs. Her miniskirt was hiked up past the tops of her black nylons, exposing a patch of purple-pantied pudenda, and she wore a surprised expression on her face, as if she had been expecting someone else (p. 1)

Stronger still is Lyons’ description of a party held at a Los Angeles art gallery –

The Beautiful People had turned out en masse for the opening. They stood shoulder to shoulder, sipping white wine and ogling each other with cocaine eyes, their voices hyper and shrill from trying to make their own profound comments heard over the collective cacophony of conversation that filled the gallery like white noise (p. 44).

Another enjoyable aspect of Castles Burning is the descriptions that Lyons gives of louche, skin-deep worlds of the wealthy adults and teens in Palm Springs.

So why only 7.5 out of 10?

The book is strong as long as it focuses on Asch’s investigation. Unfortunately, midway through, it becomes more a police procedural and these sections didn’t “hold” my interest. Fortunately, by the time I went to bed Sunday night, Asch was back to investigating and I could feel the momentum returning.

As Castles Burning heads toward the home stretch, I’m hopeful that Lyons will bring it to a satisfying close.

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Book Review – Memoirs of an Italian Terrorist by “Giorgio”

Saturday I read the entire book Memoirs of an Italian Terrorist. It’s a short book anonymously published by someone calling himself Giorgio who says that he was a member of the communist Red Brigades in the 1970s and 1980s. I first became aware of the book after reading a list of “cult books” that have gained a following.

The book is short (only about 190 pages), including a 50-page introduction by Anthony Shugaar. It probably doesn’t need to be said that a 50-page introduction is excessive. Shugaar is surprisingly sympathetic to a murderous group, stating at the end of his introduction – “I think it is very clear that in this world of darkness, of things rustling just out of sight, of massive power concealing pungent misdeed, we can still find the reasons that Giorgio became a militant, a terrorist, a clandestine” (p. 49).

The memoirs themselves are a disappointment. The story starts pretty well with Giorgio describing how his youthful participation in protest marches gradually escalated into violence as his peers urged each other to go farther. But there is little momentum. Giorgio ends up describing a boring life filled with gathering intelligence on the Red Brigades’ next victims.

A surprising aspect of the book is that the members of the Red Brigade feel little camaraderie. Giorgio writes –

“One of the things that I think has changed me over the past few years has been the realization that relations among us are terrible. The life we lead does not encourage solidarity, but rather tenion, resentment, and constant conflict” (p. 164).

Memoirs is a disappointing book. Giorgio lacks the insight to explain his actions and what he thinks of the choices he made. While the book’s premise is terrific, its potential is unfulfilled. I rate it a 5 out of 10.

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The Hunting of Cain by Dan E. Moldea

The American Dream is a continuing theme in books. The American Dream Gone Bad is a popular variation on that theme. The true-crime book The Hunting of Cain definitely falls into the latter category. It’s the terrific story of a 1980 murder in Akron. Ohio, that has contains a bizarre murder plot.

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If you’re ever in Tillmas Corner, Alabama, check out America’s Thrift Stores for cheap books…

The other day, my wife and I were loafing in America’s Thrift Store down in Tillmans Corner, Alabama. I saw a worn-out, paperback copy of The Hunting of Cain on the shelf. I picked up, just browsing, but when I read the synopsis, I was hooked and ended up buying the book for something like 50 cents. It was a great choice. I give the book a 9 out of 10.

The Milos of Akron, Ohio, were an American success story (at least on the surface). After immigrating from Albania, the Milos built up their beauty and barber supply company into a huge business. Perhaps predictably, the second generation saw the Milos three children take different attitudes toward the business. Brother Dean emerged as the boss who pushed the business to greater heights, while younger brother Fred and sister Sophie were pushed into the background.IMG_0678

Then, in August 1980, Fred was shot to death in his home in Bath Township, Ohio. The family’s secrets were laid bare in a murder plot that was almost unbelievable. The story of Dean’s murder, by itself, would make for a good book. The family’s secrets would make that book very good. But there is so much more here for the reader.

What pushes this story to the highest level is the conspiracy behind the murder. I don’t want to spoil the story for potential readers. But, among many others, you will meet –

  • * a beautiful, Akron go-go dancer addicted to i.v. Drugs,
  • * a down-on-his-luck Akron attorney,
  • * a minor mafia family from Philadelphia,
  • * a Phoenix massage-parlor owner who has spent more than half of his life in prison,
  • * a hit man with no front teeth, and
  • * a true rogue’s gallery of other criminals and lowlife.

The people that you will meet on these pages make the book worth reading. But it’s also scary to think that people like this exist. As an aside, almost all of these veteran criminals quickly “rat” on each other once the conspiracy starts to unravel.

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Back cover of my copy. I don’t think that I paid $1.25 (outrageous!).

Moldea crafts the story around the murder investigation. The book starts with Dean’s murder and follows the investigation through almost to its conclusion. (One negative is that Moldea closes the book before all of the criminal cases have ended). Moldea fills in the background details as he goes. To my surprise, he makes this storyline work, though I would have liked more details on Dean Milo.

As noted in other reviews, a good acid test for whether I like a book is whether I recommend it to family. I’ve already told my wife that “you have to read this one.”

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