Kicking Ass and Saving Souls: A book review

23 Aug

Full disclosure: I received a copy of Kicking Ass and Saving Souls free from the publisher in exchange for a review, here on Tales From the Hood.

Call me cynical, but…

Lemme get this straight. Father = African-American ex-military professor/intelligentsia; Mother = Norwegian quasi-aristocracy turned hippy. Stephan grew up bouncing between the mean streets of Baltimore, Maryland (where he earned advanced levels of proficiency at martial arts) and the posh upper-echelon estates of Scandinavia (where he learned a bunch of languages and awesome skills like how to shoot wild animals from the backs of horses). Had all kinds of training and certification in emergency medical care, lifeguarding, yadda yadda. Lost his virginity at something like fourteen years of age by boning a bunch of smoking hot, rich European housewives in a castle that his mom was using to run her trendy (“expensive”) homeopathic treatment spa. Slowly turned into globtrotting Eurotrash. Camped out with murderous natives in Colombia (they could sense that his “aura” was good, and so spared his life); ran drugs for the Gibraltar mafia (personal friends with one of the Dons); almost but conveniently never actually completed a bunch of degrees and professional certifications, including a degree in translation meant mainly for boy wonders (language skills, remember?), and an advanced diving program preparing Europeans-only to work with Jaques Cousteau (he couldn’t graduate because he was American); worked as an under-water demolitions expert; tried his hand at high-end burglary… botched a couple of high-end jobs, but still has a pouch full of priceless thumbnail-sized gems that he can never sell; fathered a couple of children (accruing guilt for which humanitarian work will be penance later…); accidentally killed a member of the Japanese Yakuza at some ‘way over-the-top club in Tokyo where he was a bouncer (all those mad martial arts skillz), and so spends the rest of his life looking over his shoulder, never quite knowing when the “Yaks” will come for him.

Hmmm…. What am I missing?

Oh yeah, he also ran gems and the odd antibiotic across the border between Thailand and Myanmar (Burma), and helped clarify his “calling” to “humanitarian work” by handing out Panadol to Karen villagers. Went to Mehlaboh right after the Tsunami with some NGO that no one has ever heard of. More or less the same in Sudan where he hitched rides on military transport aircraft, crossed borders out in the desert with impunity and “negotiated” a bunch of stuff with the SPLA (cuz, like, no other foreigners ever do those things). Kicked around Maryland for a while trying to get work as a translator for NGOs headquartered in DC (everyone needed a DC-based translator, but apparently they were only hiring people who’d actually completed a degree in something… narrow-minded corporate sell-outs. What-EVer).

But no matter: on the basis of gem/Panadol running in Karenland, three months (of doing what, exactly? Hard to tell….) in Tsunamiland, and some aid-by-the-seat-of-his-pants in Sudan, Stephan became convinced that “traditional NGOs” were not doing aid right anyway. Never saw that coming, huh?

I find it particularly telling that the twenty pages long Epilogue (235-255 in the hardcover print version) is entirely devoted to convincing you, gentle reader, that the accounts in the preceding pages are in fact factual.

Yeah. I totally believe that story.

Serious, Kicking Ass and Saving Souls reminded me a lot of sitting in an airport bar en route to [DISASTER ZONE DU JOUR] eavesdropping on the amateur aid workers getting tipsy on cheap beer and one-upping each other. It’s the best example I’ve seen to-date of that unique literary genre provided by the humanitarian world to the rest of the world: The “botoxed narrative.” Which is to say that it is probably not outright lies, but it is absolutely written to sound a lot further off-the-chain than it is in fact.

There is the small issue of false advertising: Stephan Templeton certainly got his own ass kicked plenty of times, but the number of asses actually kicked by him is somewhat meager. The “Saving Souls” bit is misleading as well. At the end of the book, the reader is left with no clear sense of what has been accomplished in the soul-saving department.

More to the point, there’s not a single person on my team who couldn’t tell an equally entertaining, equally danger-laced, and no less “true” story of their own lives (although none of them are dumb enough to kill a member of the Japanese Yakuza, get clean away, and then have the story published along with their names, photos, location…).

Stephen Templeton’s story will no doubt impress the matching T-shirt disaster zone volunteer teams, but would only withstand approximately 13.7 minutes worth of scrutiny by actual aid workers around the bar at La Reserve or “Amy’s Place.”

The writing. Kicking Ass and Saving Souls reads like a cross between an airport discount bin one-off spy thriller and the script to an adventure/porn film starring Jean-Claude van Damme. There’s that awful dialogue at the beginning: A man with a dark past who never sits with his back to the door. Deadpan, serious, intent on getting a borehole to those poor brown babies in Abyei district…(*gagging*). I literally had to tell myself it was fiction in order to get through some parts. It gives me hope to think that David Matthews (the author) can get book in the NYT Editor’s Choice list.

But then again anyone who can describe cocaine as “pure and white as an Amish schoolgirl”, can’t be all bad.

The humanitarian angle. Two words: Puh lease. The guy’s a disaster tourist. End of story.

17 Responses to “Kicking Ass and Saving Souls: A book review”

  1. Luc Lapointe 23 August, 2011 at 6:43 am #

    Hummm I am not really interested in your book review but mostly in one comment that you use when you say “amateur aid workers”. Sounds extremely condescending and I imagine that you have a fact sheet on what makes someone an amateur or a professional and everything in between. Every day I run in to monologue like yours who offer little to the world (industry of NGO). It’s strange that the aid sector is probably the one that focuses most on what divides us than what unites us.

    Strange that in 2011, you still portray the attitude that only a few of you have the answer to the world ills. I am glad I wasn’t born in poverty and I would have to depend on your sector to have a chance in life.

  2. Flatlander 23 August, 2011 at 11:03 am #

    This guy’s clearly self-penned wikipedia entry reads like an action hero profile, which would not be as annoying if his self-promotion didn’t drag down the seriousness of these situations. Southern Sudan seemed to attract a lot of these guys (yes, they are all men), playing out pseudo-military, cloak and dagger fantasies (sometimes, extra frightfully, combined with a wacky Christian edge). “Helped lead 60,000+ refugees from Abyei to Agok”? Give me a break (and have some respect for the people of Abyei).

  3. pstaylor (@pstaylor) 23 August, 2011 at 1:53 pm #

    Why the hell did the publisher send you a review copy? They shoulda known you weren’t gonna be happy with it.

  4. Fast E 24 August, 2011 at 1:34 am #

    WOW! If I ever manage to get another book published, I’ll think twice before sending you a free copy to review…don’t know if I could “handle the truth” the way you dish it out so brutally and eloquently!:) Seriously, you got to give at least a few points for the over-the top creativity and a catchy title, right? ….So what books of this genre would you recommend? I’d be very keen to read anything that passes your high standards/B.S.-Sniff-Test….

  5. sevenfaces 24 August, 2011 at 10:19 am #

    OK, so I’m kind of new to this genre, but I’ll throw Emma’s War by Deborah Scroggins out there for your consideration. I confess I’m enjoying it (I am ducking right now) .thoughts or comparisons?

  6. Luc Lapointe 25 August, 2011 at 2:02 pm #

    Ad,

    I just tried to google you….hummm that did not work! Darn I just realized I am the only one using my real name. Good work Mr J. — don’t google the others!

  7. Heather J. @ TLC 31 August, 2011 at 10:58 am #

    Darn, I’m sorry this didn’t turn out to be a good fit for you, but thanks for sharing your honest opinion for the tour!

  8. David Matthews 17 September, 2011 at 4:16 pm #

    Hiya, David Matthews here. I wrote KASS, and first: thanks for taking the time to review it. Second, I never, ever respond to criticisms of my work, but in this case, I’d like to clear up a few things.

    Your description of Stefan Templeton’s skill set, motivations, and effectiveness are flat out incorrect. And this isn’t a case of ‘hero worship’ or my desire to move units. I go to lengths in the prologue and epilogue to establish that I had no idea whether this book would be an expose, or unmasking, of someone I thought I knew, but hadn’t seen in many years, or a straightforward biography. The simple truth of the matter is that Stefan’s work in East Africa (as well as Honduras and Indonesia) has saved many lives, through direct, hands-on intervention. I watched some of it, and spoke to aid workers–some whom who actively disdained his methods–who corroborated his efficacy on the field. (A simple youtube search would at least have given you an ABC News Australia clip of Stefan in Indonesia, immediately post-tsunami, though that likely wouldn’t have fit into your narrative).

    I get you don’t dig my writing, which is fine, different horses for courses and all that. But painting Stefan Templeton as some sort of Walter Mitty highlights either your deeply cynical low belief horizon, or your own, jaded view of what disaster management outside of the NGO world can or should look like. I’m not saying you don’t know the humanitarian world, or that you haven’t seen some shit. I’m just saying that in Stefan’s case, you don’t know what you’re talking about.

    As for your incredulity about his upbringing and childhood, I don’t know what to tell ya. You should get out more. His formative years are exactly as I described, and I even left out stuff–waay more exciting stuff than wound up in the book–owing to space considerations.
    KASS–stylistic concerns aside, tells it how it went down. As to your claim that: “there’s not a single person on my team who couldn’t tell an equally entertaining, equally danger-laced, and no less “true” story of their own lives ..” Uhhh. Bullshit.

    I’ll take that Pepsi challenge. Tell me the story of someone you know who has completed ALL of the following:
    1) Has as variegated a life history– including Stefan’s extremity of economic/racial/cultural/sexual/educational experiences.
    2) Acquired, by age nine, a mastery of martial arts.
    3) Acquired, by age nine, fluency in three languages.
    4) Participated in high-stakes criminal activity on a global scale.
    5) Undertaken disaster management as a way of life, regardless of payment.
    6) Done all of the above with no affiliation with military/intelligence/religious organizations.

    Now, obviously, I just described Stefan Templeton, which is kinda the point. Lots of people can lay claim to one, or maybe even a couple of those criteria. But all of them? That’s why Penguin Press, a pub house not known for sensationalistic, ‘airport’ titles put out KASS, and not the unbelievable true story of one of your ‘equally entertaining’ friends’.

    I promise, double promise and pinky swear that your friends’ lives, no matter how interesting and fraught with adventure/intrigue/blah/blah, do not have the intersections of class/race/culture/violence/sex/bildungsroman in proportions fecund enough to sustain a book. I fucking promise.

    If they do, I make you this promise: I will send it (or its proposal or pitch, or whatever) along to my agent, publisher and anyone else I can think of to give it wings in the publishing marketplace. Good luck. No bullshit. I mean that. The world needs amazing, thrilling, inspirational stories.

    Lastly, your comment that the book is “absolutely written to sound a lot further off-the-chain than it is in fact” is patently incorrect. The book sounds breathless and unbelievable because the motherfucker has had a life. He’s done the things I’ve written about. Things you haven’t done, I haven’t done, your friends haven’t done. I’d tell you what the guy is up to right now, while I’m nestled in my apartment safe and sound, and you’re wherever you are, but you probably wouldn’t believe me. I’ve got a jump-stick full of emergency contact info for him I don’t want to use, and would definitely put me on a list I’ll never get off of, but whatever. I’ve know him since I was 9 and he’s kind of a dick, has made some questionable choices, but he’s also done the thing out there, and made a difference. End of rant.

    And his name is Stefan. Not Stephan.

    Thanks for the review,

    David Matthews.

    • MS 19 October, 2011 at 5:04 pm #

      Brilliant David!
      I’m so happy you posted on this fool’s review. It needed to be done.

    • J. 20 October, 2011 at 9:51 am #

      “I promise, double promise and pinky swear that your friends’ lives, no matter how interesting and fraught with adventure/intrigue/blah/blah, do not have the intersections of class/race/culture/violence/sex/bildungsroman in proportions fecund enough to sustain a book. I fucking promise.”

      “He’s done the things I’ve written about. Things you haven’t done, I haven’t done, your friends haven’t done.”

      You don’t know my friends. I think the lady doth protest too much…

      “The world needs amazing, thrilling, inspirational stories.”

      Meh. Maybe. But whatever, dude. In the end the buyers will be the ones to decide whether or not KASS is one such story.

  9. burbs 16 October, 2011 at 12:37 pm #

    Funniest review I’ve read in ages. Nice one.

    “I promise, double promise and pinky swear that your friends’ lives, no matter how interesting and fraught with adventure/intrigue/blah/blah, do not have the intersections of class/race/culture/violence/sex/bildungsroman in proportions fecund enough to sustain a book. I fucking promise.”

    Quite the Bard.

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