Monday, November 23, 2009

Old Boys

I believe I found a mystery bookstore in Greenwich Village called Partners & Crime whilst on a random walk to somewhere or other, and felt compelled to dip inside immediately. The bookstore was lined from wall to wall with thrillers and mysteries and espionage, the very latter of which I was looking to fill my own literary collection with. So I think I started to ask him about novels that would serve as an introduction to espionage, or maybe something that wouldn’t lose me immediately as “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” did (I’m sure this wouldn’t be the case if I started to read it today, the brain was not fully trained back then). The man from behind the counter suggested this book.

Author Charles McCarry, an ex-CIA agent and speechwriter for Eisenhower, penned 2004’s “Old Boys”. Here, the main protagonist Horace Christopher, retired CIA spy and cousin of master spy Paul Christopher, becomes distraught when after a night of a casual dinner with his cousin, Paul goes missing. He is later told, out of nowhere, by the Xinjiang police that Paul is dead and his ashes are then sent back to Horace for proper burial………..but something is ultimately fishy and unbelievable about the whole report. In a hidden letter left behind by Paul that Horace finds, it is revealed that Ibn Awad, a Middle-Eastern terrorist that Horace attempted to assassinate long ago, is still alive, along with 12 nuclear bombs and an interest in the Amphora Scroll, an artifact with old journalistic writings that may very well undermine one of the world’s widely held truths. So, Horace assembles the “Old Boys”, a group of old colleagues from the Outfit (the U.S. intelligence service [CIA?]), and sets out to seek for the truth about his cousin as well as The Amphora Scroll.

I was expecting more of a whodunit espionage than an adventure one, but I was not let down. I mean, unfortunately I still encountered the same old team of American Professional friends that were super loyal to each other, knew everything about everything and had all kinds of money and tools to their name, and were patriotic to the core. Unfortunately I still encountered the same old terrorist villain who has to be Middle Eastern by default and is concerned with nothing more than bombing the infidel Americans and having their belief system come crashing down. But what was engaging throughout all this was McCarry’s realist and moderate-pace approach to the writing. Far more realist than the other novels I’ve come across, such as the dreadful “Prayers For The Assassin”. Horace expresses small emotional connections to Ibn Awad in some places of the story (even if they are ones of mostly pity), instead of approaching him with wholesale, black-and-white American hatred. The descriptions of places such as Xinjiang and Ulugqat and Italy, as well as the characters and situations, are all expressed in an objective, to-the-point manner. The narrative moves quickly and is never repetitive or boring. There is some sap-killing energy in the dynamic between Horace and the group of “Old Boys”: Jack, Harley, Charley and David, each of whom have skills in their group role and political connections/cultural understanding of other countries. There comes some tension in between Jack and Horace in various moments, but other than that, all of them are like a tight-knit, simple and uninteresting group of friends in pursuit of the mad Mid-Eastern.

The Amphora Scroll was a fascinating and unique political treatment of the Book of John. The idea of Judas being sympathetic and Christ’s miracles amongst his spiritual campaign being powered by his own naivete, the overseeing of a Pharisee and the leadership and money of a Roman soldier held my attention more than the rest of the book.

“Old Boys”, at 473 pages, isn’t a lightning quick read, but it isn’t a massive volume of cranium crunching either. It’s a good balance of intelligence, character and fun that will peak an interest in McCarry’s earlier works.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Reluctant Fundamentalist


I was in line to buy something else at Barnes and Noble, and I turned and caught sight of a table of books being sold for 8$ and under or some such mess. This was sticking out in there. The name got my attention, the summary of the plot gathered even more, and before I knew it, I tucked it under my arm in preparation for purchase.
"Such journeys have convinced me that it is not always possible to restore one's boundaries after they have been blurred and made permeable by a relationship: try as we might, we cannot reconstitute ourselves as the autonomous beings we previously imagined ourselves to be. Something of us is now outside, and something of the outside is now within us." pg. 173-174 of the hardcover.

Indeed. "The Reluctant Fundamentalist" by Mohsin Hamid is the story of a Pakistani man and an American person sitting at a cafe in Lahore, Pakistan, while the Pakistani, named Changez, narrates how this chance meeting has come to be. Changez is introduced and immured in the upper crust of American life. After graduating from Princeton, he goes to work for the top valuation firm Underwood Samson. He gets romantically involved with a beautiful classmate, Erica, who shows him to the nightlife of gallery openings, night clubs and parties. Of course, this is all months before 9/11. After that most famed event occurs, things begin to turn upside down in Changez's life. Politics begin to pervade and corrupt his identity in America and his home country. The novel is the story of his loss and change as he attempts to deal with these new antagonizations.

This is intelligent and colorful prose about a man struggling with education, identity, love and culture. I would not say moving or stirring; it's not something that aims for the melodramatic* nor does it really cut that deep into any particular media-galvanizing subject. But it makes a statement about the inner and outer workings of America, from the way it treats it's "own" in peace and war time, to the way it's character1 looks to other countries (which in turns shows the way it looks at other countries).

There is also a solid and interesting love story here. This spiritual love triangle develops as Changez falls in love with the free spirit Erica, whose heart is in still in bondage to her boyfriend Chris, who died years ago from cancer after smoking one cigarette. Originally, I was going to write that the plot above is not real story but just the background for having the romance set against something dramatic. But, now that I think about it, it's quite possible that Hamid just used the love story to point you to the more important, political matters unfolding behind it.

A few people on Twitter said Hamid was overrated and annoying, although I did not find anything to make me agree with these terms. Especially since I haven't heard of him until I picked up this book. So, I will say out of my experience that this is at least worth a rental in the library, and you can feel it out from there. As for myself, I definitely thought it was worth the purchase.

*It doesn't have to be melodramatic to be moving. As a matter of fact, most literature that attempts to move me would stay away from the melodramatic.

Notes:
1) Took this term right out of Obama's mouth from yesterday's Health Care Reform Speech.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Prayers for the Assassin

So yes, after putting down "Assassin" by Ted Bell last year, I've attempted another chisel-faced espionage novel. People in the literary world are always coining their own phrases. "Steampunk", "Cyberspace", "Postmodernism" (well, not that one)..........I would like to coin "Chisel-faced Espionage". This phrase is to define the sub-genre of espionage concerning characters who are exceptionally good at, like, 10 billion things (the main character in this novel is a god* when armed with a knife, can endure all kinds of pain and psychological tests, and is handsome and untouchable to boot), and also are in the top infrastructural brass: heads of National Security and Presidents, top computer hacks, the nieces and nephews of said figures who are also super-intelligent and powerful in their own way......such a conservative view of life. Only the ones with money and man-made authority are the ones who matter. But I digress.......I've completed Robert Ferrigno's chisel-faced espionage narrative "Prayers For The Assassin".

"SEATTLE, 2040. The Space Needle lies crumpled. Veiled women hurry through the streets. Alcohol is outlawed, replaced by Jihad Cola, and mosques dot the skyline. New York and Washington, D.C., are nuclear wastelands. At the edges of the empire, Islamic and Christian forces fight for control, and rebels plot to regain free will."
Rakkim Epps, a talented ex-member of the elite military group The Fedayeen, is hired by Redbeard, head of National Security, to find Redbeard's niece Sarah Doogan, a historian who ran off out of feared of being killed by the Black Robes for her discovery of a dangerous secret about the current state of the U.S., which is divided in almost the same exact geographical fashion as the American Civil War, except instead of by North and South, this is by Muslim and Christian. Add in things like the romantic relationship between Rakkim and Sarah, the partial scorn of this by Redbeard, Redbeard being blamed for his brother's murder by his brother's wife Katherine, small discussions on the conflicts and similarities between Muslims and Christians, and a murderous, anarchic and intelligent ex-Fedayeen member named Darwin (which I'm sure is purposefully named to reference the naturalist) also after Sarah under the employ of the powerful and rich Muslim The Old One, and you have this sprawling story.

I remember, a long time ago, I went to Borders with a friend, and as I was leaving, my eyes spotted this book. Rather, I spotted a book with the word "Assassin" in the title, and I was immediately drawn. I read about the future world split by religion after a nuclear bombing, and I vowed to pick this up at some point in life. That was in 2006. A couple of years later I did, and was satisfied and disappointed at the same time.

This is really a novel in the literary style of "God's Spy" (written about below), "Assassin", or James Patterson, in that it has that a seeping flatness and cliche in its writing, as well as a cast of self-righteous characters I have no real reason to keep reading about in any sequels. It is indeed informing in a lot of aspects concerning Muslim culture, structure, although nothing completely new. Robert Ferrigno also manages to paint a vivid future world, with tangible tension between the Southern Bible Belt and the newly instated Muslim world stretching from Las Vegas to New York, although there is hardly a voice for the Christians (I'm willing to bet Ferrigno was told to do this or did it himself to keep inline with the constant mentioning of Iraqis and Muslim in national media, to give people the impression they are reading something important). I also will not say the characters were completely 2-Dimensional...........

But ultimately, the only vested interest, just like "The Da Vinci Code", is to see what will happen next. To answer the questions posed at the beginning of the book, regardless of who answers them. Rakkim is slightly mysterious and headstrong (which is stretched thin in the story when it really could've just been said), but ultimately his fighting skills and ability to see the advantages and disadvantages in any given environment before a fight is what kept me interested in him, since he and a few other wholesale good guys were the only ones capable of answering said narrative questions. Those two traits were possessed in addition to a fun personality (for the most part) in Darwin. But of course, him being the only person with an actual dynamic world within his character (which is said but not shown), basically just appeared as some skilled, maniacal jester.

So, pick it up if you're still interested. As for myself, I really have to make a list of which authors are aiming for which crowds.

*God - lowercase. I believe the author is a strict atheist, so that is said in application to the world of this novel.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

I have not forgotten

Yes, it has been decades, millenia, or even full planet lifetimes since I've posted on here. But I have not forgotten. Just, in dealing with trying to get up some money to move out and figure out a living situation for myself, my mind's been burrowed in practical living for the last few weeks. Right now, I'm reading "Prayers for the Assassin" by Robert Ferrigno, the kind of chiseled-faced espionage books, much similar to Ted Bell, that I swore off a long time ago. I'm also reading "The Reluctant Fundamentalist" by Mohsin Hamid, a literary style much more to my liking.

I will definitely be back with reviews of both of these. And I also am thinking of picking up another novel on top of these two, whose name I will not say but I will mention that I've been thinking for a long time of penning of modern day screenplay of it.

I will be back soon.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Gun, With Occasional Music

Usual deal: I finished this a little while ago but am just getting to blog about it now. I'm not sure I remember how I came across this book. If I remember correctly, I think I was looking through wikipedia on the list of Macarthur Grant fellows (wishing I was one) and focusing on the novelists and poets. Cormac McCarthy was listed for his work up to 1981, others were written there through out the following years, and then Jonathan Lethem appeared. I checked him out, read a bit about "Motherless Brooklyn", his history in essaying, "The Fortress of Solitude", and then this book. Reading the summary for it and considering that this is a widely-acclaimed author (who I keep confusing with Michael Chabon for some reason, whom I've also written about on this blog), I was definitely intrigued to buy.

In the future of this sci-fi noir mystery, psychology has become a proselytized movement much like Jehovah's Witnesses are now. Most people are hooked on "make", a mind-numbing drug that is sniffed or injected with ingredients such as Forgettol and Addictol. And most importantly, animals and babies have evolved. They are both now talking, intelligent members of society.
Private investigator Conrad Metcalf, who lives in this futuristic Oakland, must investigate the murder of a certain Dr. Maynard Stanhunt. As it stands, a naive and dull Orton Angwine being held as the culprit by the Law or "The Office", but claims that he is being set-up. Metcalf must find who the real killer is while battling his own demons, which include a make addiction, a sexual nerve ending switch from the past, and an evolved kangaroo hitman named Joey on his heels.

Nothing too in-depth or involving, Lethem's novel could be finish in a day or two tops. The language is kept quite simple (especially in contrast to the works of Chabon or Rushdie. See below) and the narrative runs pretty smoothly. This, however, kind of throws me off on the sci-fi bit.....although that could be my own fault for expecting the genre to be one way. The term "sci-fi" makes me think of huge unknown words used to physically and biologically bring abstract concepts to life. The science in this novel is touched on a few times, sprinkled here and there in the sex nerve ending theme and the biologically evolved species, but it doesn't really have that "tech" or "geek" feel. And perhaps Lethem was purposefully avoiding this. That's fine, but I don't feel like there was much else there to justify fully classifying this in the sci-fi genre. More like a mystery story with a slant.

I also didn't feel too steep in the hard-edge, noir of it either, although that coloring of the novel's reality was certainly there. Metcalf was definitely the tough investigator that typically put himself in harm's way without much concern for anything but the truth, which in itself gets its drive from him wanting to keep his job and make a living. All of the characters were amoral: none totally representative of good or bad, just human (even the animals). These things can be affirmed on the noir checklist, but I never felt the true oppressive or anxious nature of murk and nihilism in Lethem's writing.

The characters, from the stiff Dr. Testafer, the hard-boiled Inquisitor Morganlander, the blunt and forceful kangaroo hitman Joey, the dazed-and-confused Pansy Greenleaf, the damsel-in-distress Celeste Stanhunt and the sexy Inquisitor Catherine Teleprompter are all drawn out in sufficient detail and clarity. They are interesting characters that motivate the book properly from start to finish. The plot follows out realistically, keeping my interest in the mystery as well as Metcalf's internal conflicts. Ultimately, the novel was not anything particular or special, but I would say that it does the job of entertaining.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Pygmy

Alas, the time has come when I am to review one of my all-time top favorite authors, the dark, satirical genius Chuck Palahniuk. Oddly, and somewhat undesirably, this comes after venturing (and chuckling hard) through his latest and most most idiosyncratic entries into the literary world. After first reading "Lullaby" a long time ago stemming from curiousity about the author's work from watching "Fight Club", it became an immediate obligation to read as many of his work as possible. So far, I've gotten through 5 1/2 of them. Something in me completely rebels against reading "Snuff" for some reason. The book just appears to be pointless (although my brain tells me it's not). But while the promotion for that book was in the works, I read on Wikipedia the plot summary of "Pygmy" and pre-ordered it immediately.

Written in disjointed and fragmented English grammar, "Pygmy" is the story of a young unnamed boy from a totalitarian country, sent through a Foreign Exchange Student program to America to live with what is characterized as the typical American family. Of course, we must add to this that the boy is an operative, raised and sent to the States as a terrorist to unhatch a massive deadly plot will genocidally take care of "American parasites". But as time passes, things change.........

I must've looked like some sort of Special Ed student while reading the first few pages on the train, from laughing to myself so hard:

"For official record, host father present as vast breathing cow, blowing out
putrid stink diet heavy with dead slaughterhouse flesh, bellowing stench of
Viagra breath during cow father reach to clasp hand of operative me. From tissue
compress rate of father fist, bone-to-cow ratio, host father contain 31.2
percent body fat." (pg. 2 of hardcover)
The language is, of course, better than even the story itself. Although appearing quite robotic and stiff in nature, as is the intended impression of a character raised in a strict totalitarian, worker-training country, where death and life were very solid neighbors on two sides of a thin line, Palahniuk skillfully keeps it from failing the protagonist as a human. Plenty of his own emotions, even when communicated through his artificial pseudo-science talk, still manage to appear as genuine as they're supposed to.

It also serves to reflect our society's nature and traditions back on to us in a very practical and hysterical light, such as teenagers at the yearly prom:
"Occasional male student approach female, request mutual gyrate to demonstrate
adequate reproductive partner, fast gyrate to display no cripple. No genetic
defect to bequeath offspring. Demonstrate coordinated, plenty vital to provision
impregnated female throughout gestation period. Provision subsequent offspring
until matured. Females flaunt dermis and hair to depict viable vessel for
impregnate, paint face so appear most symmetrical. Best likely produce frequent
alive births." (pg. 56 of hardcover)
The narrative itself, however, will have to be declared as one of Chuck's weakest. Sure, the novel is chock full of Palahniukian commentary on pop culture, in this case the political and economic structure of this very country (pay attention to what is said of the rape scene at the beginning of the story). Sure, it has the typically detailed ultra-graphic sexual and violent acts that the Palahniuk fan is used to. And it has, overall, plenty of new ways to look at our own lives. But the characters and situations used to convey these things are entirely too flat, especially for the author of "Rant". "Pygmy" is very well developed, perhaps even beyond what we actually need. As a consequence, he completely shadows over almost every other character in the book, especially his own family. The protagonist grows attachments to people, and keeps distances from other people, that I didn't really sympathize with or understand.

For the true comical cynicism, I'd recommend "Survivor" or "Lullaby" before tackling his recent works. Those are representatives of him at his peak, while this shows him trying to go a more straightforward, slap-happy direction. So, although this is certainly not one of Palahniuk's best, it in itself is still a great novel.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Road

As you can probably tell, I like to read the books of upcoming films and compare the two. I either heard somewhere or read at Wikipedia that "The Road" was being adapted. Somewhere along the lines, I had also read something about a tree of dead fetuses figuring into the story*, and I immediately had to snatch it up and place it in higher priority than other books I've bought long ago but haven't read yet. What? The image was too morbid? Graphic? Are you asking why I'd want to read something like that? Then you're probably pretty limited in your imagination and narrow-minded. I love the most bizarre and unique stories coming from some of the best logical and sensible artists. Writers that usually produce about a novel a month and have "series" and soulless cop or espionage books (ahem....James Patterson....Ted Bell.....) will always turn me away. But the writers who are not afraid to show how disfigured the world can be will always get me. The Toni Morrisons. The Chuck Palahniuks. The Alan Moores. The Vladimir Nabokovs. Latin American authors (some of whom I've written about here). And of course.....

The Cormac McCarthys.

Here we are....An unknown year, or month or day. It's not really clear what season it is, but it's unsensibly cold all around. Everything is covered with ash, destroyed or burnt in McCarthy's Post-Apocalypse. The man and the boy, who are named just that, must walk The Road towards the South if they are to find salvation or help, or at least the man hopes so. The book deals with the many obstacles they must face on their journey, from starvation, to sickness, to shelter, to catamites and bands of cannibals amongst the "nameless and autistic dark".

The language, which some have called Biblical and I poetic, in the novel is nothing short of amazing. McCarthy keeps a fluent objectivity and pierces the reader's physical and emotional sensation with vivid (although sometimes tough) vocabulary and imagery:

"He had this feeling before, beyond the numbness and the dull despair. The world
shrinking down about a raw core of parsible entities. The names of things
slowly following those things into oblivion. Colors. The names of birds. Things to eat. Finally the names of things one believed to be true. More fragile than he would have thought. How much was gone already? The sacred idiom shorn of its referents and so of its reality. Drawing down like something trying to preserve heat. In time to wink out forever." (pg. 88-89, softcover)

Famously, McCarthy uses next to no kind of punctuation marks (question marks, exclamation points, semi-colons, parenthesis), enforcing the deadpan, matter-of-fact feel of the narration. As if, the narrator is viciously indifferent to the extreme poverties the man and the boy have to face.

One problem I've had with the story is that it feels like the plot never moves. Some of the situations and objects that the main characters come across are pretty intriguing, but these are quick blips of special interest in what is otherwise a very slow paced book. Perhaps seeing the story on film (the John Hillcoat adaptation looks pretty flat and unMcCarthy-ish from the trailer, by the way) will make me feel differently about it, but as far as the book goes, I'd advise reading in a relax state in your spare time. Not really a ride-the-train-and-let-your-mind-soar novel.

I would love to start reading "Blood Meridian", which I've bought before "The Road", but "Pygmy" by Chuck Palahniuk has been screaming at me to open it next.

*I was mistaken. It's in another book.

Friday, May 8, 2009

The Savage Detectives

Sorry for taking so long. This book was 648 pages, and is also the best book I've ever read in a while. You will definitely see reviews of more Bolaño works here. It has struck me that Latin literature is definitely the source of magnificent writing, or is the Samurai's true appeal.

Roberto Bolaño, the new man/myth/legend born in 1953 and author of "The Savage Detectives", is a Chilean writer who has lived in Mexico City and traveled to quite a few countries in his lifetime, particularly the ones where this novel takes place. He became active in left-wing politics, and at some point was imprisoned in Chile because he was considered a terrorist. Luckily, one of the prison guards was Bolaño's high school friend, and he was released. He, like just about all authors, took on a number of odd and slow jobs, including a dishwasher and garbage collector. He read avidly when he was younger and became a poet, eventually starting his own group of poets called the Infrarrealisimo (the Infrarealists), before moving on to novel writing. He passed away in 2003 from a liver illness, which was either brought on or agitated by his heroin addiction.

The story is displayed through the journal posts of Juan Garcia Madero in the 1st and 3rd sections of the book, and the interviews of probably about 30 or so various people in the heavy 2nd section of the book. It's about the journey of Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima, the founders of the 1970's poet group "Visceral Realists", as they search for the lost Mexican poet Cesarea Tinajero. In the midst, Madero (who joins the VRs) meets a prostitute named Lupe who, as friends get her to leave the street courtesan business behind, is hunted down by the powerful pimp Alberto. The thing is, if not for the rhythmic appearances of the interviews with Amadeo Salvatierra, a poet who was with the original Visceral Realists in the 1920's, the plot would be completely lost on readers through the middle, which barely covers it.

The narrative drifts through the lives of people in Mexico City, California, Barcelona, Paris, Israel, Viennes, Central Africa, and probably some other places I forgot. We go to the introduction of the Visceral Realists in Mexico City, to a British hippie's life working in a grape harvest in Barcelona, to a man who starts to see numbers everywhere which enables him to win the lottery, to Arturo's short stint in Israel robbing people for money with Hermito Kunst, to a man aiding the rescue of a boy stuck down in a well "with the devil", and others before returning to the search for Tinajero.

I didn't really take notes this time around, only for the fact that I was so engrossed in the book that anything that even detracted from reading for a second was a sharp no-no. One thing that did stay in my mental notebook, however, was the names of characters, towns and streets, which Bolaño lists like some sort of Latin encyclopedia. "Super" Latin names like Xochitl, Moctezuma (I may name my child this), Jacinto, Amadeo Salvatierra, Jauregui, Auxilio, Zopilote and place names like the Encrucijada Veracruzana stuck out like a sore thumb to me and brought me into the heart of Mexico City, only because I'm used to plain ole' Lopezes and Rodriguezes and Riveras.

Out of the 648 pages of this award-winning novel that put him in the American mainstream eye, I can definitely say that I enjoyed about 630 of them. It got boring in some parts, particularly in Julio Martinez Morales's excerpt starting on page 514 (softcover), with a page and a half worth of:

"Wandering. Wandering. The honor of poets: the chant we hear as a pallid judgement. I see young faces looking at the books on display and feeling for coins in the depths of pockets as dark as hope. 7x1=8, I say to myself as I glance out of the corner of my eye at the young readers and a formless image is superimposed on their remote little smiling faces as slowly as an iceberg."
The passage may strike some interest in itself, but I don't think it disrupts the language of the rest of the prose in the right way.

I'm definitely a person who is more plot-focused than anything (which would probably explain the mystery genre's appeal to me), and it bothers me a little that I have yet to figure out what was so intriguing about Bolaño's language. On a sidenote, ironically, I picked this book up in B&N because the title suggested that it would be a huge mystery novel, which it is nowhere near. Anyway, what I've got so far is that he does not try to force emotions about what's going on in the story down my throat through repetitive, droning writing. The language here is very factual in nature and simplistic in voice, letting me feel things out for myself. Also, every sentence presents new information in some form or fashion and keeps me interested, instead of the story moving one whole page at a time by nitpicking tiny, corny events in bonehead blabber. For instance:

"The work was exhausting and possibly the only good thing about it was that after the working day no one felt like fighting. Still, there were plenty of sources of friction. One afternoon Hugh, Steve, and I told Hans that we needed at least two more workers. He agreed but said that it was impossible. When we asked why, he said it was because he had contracted with Monique's uncle to finish the harvest with eleven workers, and not a single person more." (Mary Watson's narrative, pg. 263)

In American melodramatic hands this would probably read: "The work was exhausting and I was very tired. I sat to rest my body a bit because it ached. Possibly the only good thing about it (the work) was that after the working day, no one felt like fighting. I never liked to see people fight because it stressed me out somewhat. i just like to work in peace. I still felt like there were plenty of sources of friction...." or something along these lines. It doesn't move past the worthless crap quick enough.

I'm not even really sure if I could name that many themes past poetry and love that appear in the novel. It's such a sprawling work that it would probably take a reading each year to sit and decontruct what's really being told behind everything. Of course, I would love to do this, and will probably attempt to squeeze it in between reading everything else Bolaño and a million other books (I usually prefer to read a different or new author every book). I think I will go ahead and buy "2666", which is over a thousand pages, as well as "By Night in Chile" and "Distant Star". What I really look forward to is "Monsieur Pain", which I sadly have to wait until next January for.

Ah well, on to "The Road" by Cormac McCarthy............

Sunday, March 29, 2009

"Button, Button"

To be honest with you, there's really not much to say about the title story of this short story collection by Richard Matheson, author of "I Am Legend". "Legend" was a magnificent read, very much different from the most recent Will Smith film (took place in different times; the creatures could talk and were very clearly vampires; the dog was not so important; etc.). Based on this, I had read somewhere, possibly Wikipedia, that "Button, Button" was also in the process of being made into a film, starring Cameron Diaz and directed by Richard Kelly ("Donnie Darko", "Southland Tales"). So, being the read-the-book-before-the-film-came-out buff that I am, I immediately went over to pick up a copy.

I finished this book on the same day that I finished "The Killing Joke", which is written about below this post. It was 10 pages. 10 8th grade reading level pages, in which next to nil happens. A pleasant married couple gets a visit from a stranger who offers them a box with a button on it. It is explained that if the button is pressed, $50,000 will be sent to the couple's banking account. At the same time, someone that the button presser doesn't know will die.

Explaining this plot alone has probably spoiled about 5 pages. I have to say that I was disappointed with the story and the outcome. "Button, Button" would probably be a true example of work being transformed into a big deal solely based on the author's literary reputation alone. Characters, story, atmosphere, tone, plot, none of these things really ever come close to being developed. That's.......really all I can say about that.

I've went into the other short stories: a man trying to care for his wife who has been bitten by a vampire, a couple traveling in the MidWest American desert and going to a diner where the husband ends up missing. They were all, to say the most, pretty disappointing. The collection may entertain those who know exactly what they're getting, but otherwise, I would recommend that you keep your money and wait to see how the film will fare.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The Killing Joke

Great graphic novel with one serious problem.....it's waaaaaaay too short. Something like 45 pages to be exact. If you've read the "Watchmen" and/or "V For Vendetta" posts on this blog, then you may remember that I have become a colossal Alan Moore fan. I always look forward to his vivid and provocative works.

In reading about "The Dark Knight", I read that both Heath Ledger in his portrayal of the Joker and Tim Burton in his direction of the first Batman film in 1989 drew inspiration from "The Killing Joke" in their work. I was already interested in it from the simple fact that the history of the Joker was put in Moore's hands, but I was immediately compelled to order the GN after reading about its basis in the industry's portrayal of everyone's favorite winged-mouse. I placed my order at B&N.com and wildly anticipated diving right into what I was sure to be a complex, jigsaw puzzle of a story. So you can imagine my extreme disappointment in finding that the book itself was only about 45 pages. I finished it in a single train ride =*(

Batman is heading to Arkham Asylum, a center for the criminally insane note below, to see and talk to the Joker. After arriving in his cell and trying to get to some reason as to why those two hate each other so much and don't even really know each other, Batman soon discovers that he is indeed talking to some other lackey who is face-painted as the Joker, as the real one has escaped. The story then follows Batman tracking down and arresting the infamous criminal while we are given a look into his past and the circumstances that made him the maniacal and demonic Clown he is today.

There is some turn from previous incarnations of both of the protagonists. Batman is much more sensitive and diplomatic, which seemed to weaken him as an entertaining character a little. The Joker, however, is much more deliberate and philosophical, which actually served to give enlivening glimpse into his psyche. As I complained about above, the story had plenty of room for a lot more elaboration. But all in all, this is a brilliant piece of writing.

NoteThere is no such thing as "criminally" insane. Insanity is just insanity. There isn't any different breed of crazy for lawful people and unlawful people, because all of the insane have cut themselves from any attachment to societal norm and law and just focus on their own. They are not intent on being criminals. But I'm sure Moore knows this.

Monday, February 9, 2009

God's Spy

Here we are, once again: an "intriguing" new thriller by Juan Gomez-Jurado that's supposed to be the competition for "The Da Vinci Code". It's sure written in the same vein: murder mystery that leads into the most powerful figures and institutions of Catholicism and their corrupt ways of upholding holiness in the public eye. I wasn't fully able to cast judgement on TDVC because I didn't finish it. I didn't finish it because, as intriguing as the unfolding conspiracy was, Dan Brown had no sort of flair for poetry or style or substance in the writing itself what-so-ever. Rest assured, neither does Mr. Gomez-Jurado.

This particular work takes place entirely in the Vatican (which was a lot bigger than I thought) and starts after the death of John Paul II and a couple of weeks before the Conclave, an event where many priests gather to vote on who will take the seat as earthly head of the Catholic Church. A corpse is found in the Church of Santa Maria in Traspontina. Its eyes are gone, its tongue is cut out and his hands are severed and found nearby. Assigned to the case is Police Inspector Paola Dicanti, one of 20-something qualified profilers in the whole world, and Father Anthony Fowler, an American priest with a dark and brooding past. Together, they track and pursue the serial killer into what maybe a looming conspiracy against the church by head members of it.

I know now what to expect from this particular genre. I'm guessing that, in order for the thrills and plot twists to be truly effective, you have to write the story like it's some sort of researched thesis with tired, plain dialogue and weak descriptions that are easy for your teacher to breeze through and grade. And so, the mystery itself is interesting, but I can't really say I care about any of the characters or have fun reading any writing that doesn't concern the mystery. For instance:
"Hearing Robayra's name in the film dispelled her doubts the way a drunken fart
would blow through five o'clock tea at Buckingham Palace." (pg. 269)
This may have been a stab at some humor in what is for the most part a dramatic intense narrative, and that is fine. I cannot fault the attempt just because I didn't find it funny. But the joke itself was entirely too immature and third-grade slapstick for a book of this tone.
"She shut the door as abruptly as she could, but the man on the other side
wedged his foot in like an encyclopedia salesman with a large family to
support." (pg. 274)
What the hell is this? Yes, yes, I got it, support a large family, urgency, not difficult to understand. It is difficult, however, to take this humorously or seriously or at-all-ously.

There are a few other larger passages that are written badly, some of which are spoilers, but I think the above two quotes drive home the point. The mystery itself is satisfying and intriguing, but if you're looking for a thought-provoking and realistic story with vivid, three-dimensional characters that are realistic and not just technically correct, I'd advise that you avoid this. If you don't care about the writer being all "artsy" and want the story to just hurry up and get to the point, then this novel would be for you.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Final Solution

As written about on my other blog, author Michael Chabon (The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Wonder Boys) has recently published "The Final Solution". It's a literary mystery about an 80-year-old unnamed man, retired and living in his messy quarters in 1944 Sussex, who looks out his window one day to be intrigued by a little boy with a black and red parrot on his shoulder walking by the train tracks. He inquires into the German child's home life, where it is found that he is living with an African vicar and his family as well as a few other lodgers, all of whom are occasionally treated to the parrot singing random sets of numbers in German. Days later, one of the lodgers is killed and the parrot is stolen. The Inspectors in town come to the old man, reknown for his mastery of solving cases, for his assistance in helping to find the thief and killer.

The novel is pretty good for the virtue of Chabon's artistic and lingual flair alone. This is the first of his works that I've read, and I already feel like I'm too familiar with his signature writing style. The peppering of difficult and obscure words throughout makes the experience much less accessible, and sometimes it seemed as if there were places where the narrative could've been explained in much simpler terms, but these things do not strike too hard against the book's appeal. Also, with this particular character (who is one of my favorites), Chabon takes very familiar stomping grounds and puts them in his own themes (dealing with old age, emotional awakening) and interests. As a result, the novel has to balance a dramatic and comedic examination of life with keeping up the momentum of clues towards solving both mysteries. Unfortunately, a lot of times, the examination wins out. This is not a major strike against the book either, but it is something I feel should definitely be addressed if for some reason Chabon decides to have a go at another book with this character.


To summarize, "The Final Solution" is quite the visual and in-depth book. Not always accessible, but still fun to read.