Thursday, November 15, 2007

Review: The Dead Guy Interviews

The Dead Guy Interviews: Conversations with 45 of the Most Accomplished, Notorious, and Deceased Personalities in History by Michael A. Stusser.

Michael A. Stusser is a Seattle-based journalist who authors the "Accidental Parent" column in ParentMap magazine and has written for an eclectic array of magazines, including mental_floss, Seattle Magazine, Yoga International Magazine, Law & Politics and Go World Travel Magazine. Stusser is also a game inventor with The Doonesbury Game (with Garry Trudeau), EARTHALERT, The Active Environmental Game, and Hear Me Out to his credit. And sometimes he blogs.

The premise of The Dead Guy Interviews (though there are some Gals included, too) is simple: what if you could sit down with a historical figure and ask him or her a few questions? Stusser has taken the concept and run with it. The result is a series of irreverant, contemporized and humorous 3-4 page "interviews" where no topic is off the table. However, betwixt and between the sometimes sophomoric humor, bits of profanity and sarcastic banter (and a lot of talk about the sexual picadilloes of various interviewees--Stusser leaves no stone unturned in this area), you may actually learn something.

A good part of the actual historical information about each individual is provided in the brief biographical sketches preceding each interview. For instance, in the introduction to his interview with George Washington Carver, we learn:
Though recruited by big shots such as friend Henry Ford, Carver kept it real, turning down an annual slary of over $100,000 to work for Thomas Edison and refusing to consult with Stalin on agricultural matters.
This passage is typical of the way Stusser educates while "keeping it real" via the use of modern day colloquialisms. Here's another:
MS:...Tell me, what was the Globe Theatre like?

William Shakespear: Lovely venue, almost like one of your so-called open-air stadiums today.

MS: Like a football stadium?

WS: If you must make fool-hearted analogies. We had seating in the round, and VIP boxes up high. Sadly, the acoustics sucked.

MS: Did you just say "sucked?"
Stusser also asks Charles Darwin about the Darwin Awards. The method works pretty well, especially for the teenager crowd. That's not to say that adults won't be entertained, though. Stusser does a good job of interspersing information in the midst of his tongue-in-cheek question and answer sessions. Aside from the introductory bios, Stusser's interviews often help flesh out the ideas and personalities of some of these historical characters. For instance, I learned something basic about Buddha's philosophy (of which I know almost nothing about) by reading this:
MS: As a prince you had it all. Your father, King Suddhodana, even arrange a marriage to a wonderful gal. But you left it all behind. Why?

B: At the age of twenty-nine I finally looked beyond the walls of the palace. There I saw four sights.

MS: An old crippled guy, a diseased dude, a decayed, nasty corpse, and an ascetic, right?

B: The truth of life: that death, disease, age, and pain are inescapable. Poor outnumber the wealthy, and the pleasures of the rich eventually come to nothing.
This is typical of Stusser's method and works to either give the reader all the information she wants or inspire deeper investigation.

Stusser also folds in criticism of the contemporary in these interviews. While interviewing Beethoven about his life as a struggling artist, Beethoven reveals what he would have done to make some money in today's music business, "The real money would have been in concessions--Beethoven T-shirts, crop-tops, posters. Oh, to do it all over again."

Stusser also uses these interviews as a vehicle to critique current politics (both as interviewer and subject). He is especially prone to slamming those of a particular ideological bent. A sampling:
Catherine the Great:"The nobles liked some of my policies. Land giveaways, granting them serfs, eliminating taxes.

Michael Stusser: Sounds like a Republican.


Confucious: Taking a moral high ground is difficult in an era of greed, ego, and instant gratification. Many should not lead, this is a certainty. Others should not attempt to.

MS: So, you're talkin' about guys like Rush Limbaugh and Don Rumsfeld, right?


MS: When you moved back to Catalonia after World War II, you were criticized for living in Spain while it was ruled by Franco.

Salvador Dali: And I could say the same thing about you and your president. Pick any one of your warmongering heads of state--and yet you live among them!


Thomas Jefferson: Women have a great purpose in life: marriage, children, and pleasing their husbands.

MS: You should have your own show on right-wing radio...
By no means is the book full of such instances--its more like a sprinkling--but there are enough instances to make it clear that Stusser is no fan of "the right." On the other hand, Stusser also isn't concerned with being considered politically correct:
MS: What was your view on black advancement?

George Washington Carver: Rising or falling, I believe, is practically inherent in an individual. Races and nations, too: They progress or are held back by the number of individuals who do the right thing. God works in the hearts of men, and the so-called Negro problem will be solved in His own good time, and in His own way.

MS: So African Americans had themselves to blame for not achieving higher status in the South?

GWC: Ya know, I try and avoid public statements on my philosophy and mainly stick to peanuts...


Ghengis Khan: Are you calling me a mongoloid?

MS: No. That's a derogatory term for retard. You're obviously not a retard.
Perhaps the humor--or irony--is going over my head, here. To be clear, Stusser often does use actual quotes from the individuals, so some of these may derive from that method. But it seems pretty close to the line.

A couple more things. First, stylistically, Stusser sometimes writes in dialect to give voice to many of his subjects (Einstein, Freud, Marx, Mussolini, to name a few)--for example, he will use "zees" for "this." This was distracting to me on the page, though it works better in audio versions of the book. Second, I noted a small editing error. One of Benjamin Franklin's pen names is given as Silence Dogwood (it was "Dogood").

Stusser is good at dispensing with the sort of urban legends and historical myths that have grown up around various figures. For example, he takes down nearly every common myth about George Washington (cherry trees, etc.) and explains that Nostradamus' prophecies were "Full of vague allegory and ambiguity, readers have interpreted them over the centuries for their own purposes and often see what they want to see."

Many of his chapters--those on Thomas Jefferson and George Washington come to mind--would probably serve as an interesting introduction to teenagers of a more nuanced historical picture of these figures. Others, however, are a bit more caricature or even a little "fluffy." (For instance, compare the rough treatment J. Edgar Hoover experienced to the non-judgemental, fluffy interview of Karl Marx--he does take it to Chairman Mao though!). But that's OK. Sometimes Stusser is like Mike Wallace, sometimes he's like Barbara Walters.

In the end, Stusser's The Dead Guy Interviews is entertaining and gets you to think. If you can get past some of the profanity and sex (and small amount of ideological stumping) then I'd recommend it as a good nightstand book or, with some qualifications, as a way to get your teenager more interested in history.

No comments: