Monday, December 16, 2013

Stop the Whistling

Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe

Dare I even speak such heresy? Watch the movie, don't read the book.

Qualification: if you have ever been accused in the vernacular, with digressions every third or fourth word (as Dunnett says), of being a narrow-minded bigoted Bible thumping hate mongering idiot whose continued existence would give humans a bad name if only you were a human, or if this description of you would be recognized by someone you didn't realize thought she was dating you, then watch the movie, don't read the book.

The movie is great, so long as you don't read too much into certain parts. The movie is wholesome and good and clean and one that (I think) I'd be fine showing in the presence of certain not so pink now as they were before nieces of mine, save for a few moments of violence that the story hinges upon. On top of that, it's one that cannot fail to absolutely captivate. I cannot praise it highly enough.

The book is prolific with immorality, though probably no more than most novels, and a lesbian (relationship? love affair? physical relationship?), well, a lesbian something is the center of the book. In the movie, it's a friendship, and a lovely, lifelong friendship, a David and Jonathan kind of friendship, just with a significantly cuter cast.

So, three of five, and barely three: three for the sake of the five star movie.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

I Thought Ashes Were Light

Angela's AshesAngela's Ashes by Frank McCourt
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

“When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I managed to survive at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.”

So begins Frank McCourt's autobiography. And he's right: he had a hard life. But I still don't see that he had any cause to inflict it on the rest of us. I had a rather unpleasant childhood but at least I didn't write a book about it, and if I ever do it will be with significantly more humor and vivacity than this book contained. It wasn't a bad book, it just has absolutely no redemption.

The plot (spoiler): guy meets and impregnates girl in Brooklyn. Guy marries girl, the author is born. Lots of kids born, lots of kids die, father descends into alcoholism and can't keep work. The family goes "on the dole," more kids die, more drinking, more rampant poverty, cruel family, vicious teachers, etc. Then the war. Dad goes to get a job in England, never sends money. Mom gets sick but lives, Frank learns to steal, then gets a job, saves, steals and whatever else he can do to get enough money to move back to America, and the book ends. But oh look, it's an inclusio: we begin with a broke guy having sex in New York, and we end up with a broke guy having sex in New York. Yay!

Perhaps it's as bleak as it is due to looking back on life: whatever you endure as a child is normal. You have no standard beyond your own experience to judge by, so if you ever move from a difficult life to an easier life, you'll come to view your earlier years with more disfavor. But when you are going through them, they're fun, lively and thrilling, not just such extreme, bland lows as we might remember. Definitely not as bad as he remembers. But, c'est la vie.

I will say that between this book and Beloved, I'm beginning to wonder what kind of masochistic guilt motivates the Pulitzer committee: there's something there that isn't right. Sure, a book with no evil is an evil book, but a book with no good is hardly better.

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Sunday, May 5, 2013

Please Stop Pattering

Kill Me If You CanKill Me If You Can by James Patterson
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

It has been rumored among the more unfeeling of my "friends" that Jesse is a cynical man. "Jesse," they say, "is a bloke" (I give all of my friends British accents so I don't feel badly for hating them); "Jesse," they say, "is a bloke who, when confronted with a beautiful, short, single, Calvinistic paedobaptist redhead with a flurry of freckles on her cheeks and a copy of Chesterton in her hands, assumes that she'll either turn out to be his sister, in favor of low-church liturgy, or she'll get hit by a truck. But probably two out of three."

True, not one among them is necessarily the brightest Guinness in the fish tank: I glum no puddles; I wiggle no marsh. I sail the ocean (usually) beating Lucy. Have they not heard my life motto? When I am faced with evils too great to be borne, such as Briana prevailing against me at chess, or Andrew shaving, or Dave, I say "Why so downcast, O my soul? Why so disquieted within me? This shadow too shall resolve into beauty, for if it didn't, then it wouldn't, and that would just straight-up suck." Am I not joyful? Is not this optimism at it's absolute, fatalistic finest?

I say all of this as a prelude to my review of Patterson. If any of you are aspiring smithies of the words, should any of you meander through Anglo-Saxon dictionaries looking for gems to glean, should any of your fingers be as inkstained as Jo March's and you know who I'm talking about because you read everything no matter what kind of feministic drivel with wretched sentence-construction it is, then buy this book. Don't read it yet, but buy it. Five years from now a moment will arrive. You will re-read that first chapter of yours and realize with horror and despair that some thirty-five year old greasy-haired, unemployed twit sleeping till two pm in his mom's basement, that twit, still living off of Doritos and Coco-Puffs, the one who spends his time on-line gaming with twelve-year-olds, he, spawn of the devil that he is, wrote a blog post in ten minutes maintaining that Counter-Strike was totally way more awesome than Halo and his blog post was better written than your chapter. That moment of terrifying clarity will arrive. When it does, and you realize that you write like a twelve year old Pakistani immigrant who learned English for the sole purpose of compiling a phone book, that you can't put your pen to paper without subtracting from the sum of human knowledge, when your only hope seems to be gainful employment or suicide—at that moment, pick up this book, say audibly "this man is a NY Times best-seller," and read it. When you're halfway through, you'll print your manuscript and send it to his publisher complete with a request for an advance and a promise of two new books for him next week.

It was the worst book I've ever finished, and I've read Rick Joyner, Left Behind and Twilight. Was it train-of-thought? Three hundred pages, two hundred chapters? His characters have the depth of a mud puddle on a newly paved street after a drizzle and I know damned well which one I'd prefer spending my time with. Especially if worms are involved. I got it for a dollar, read it in an hour and felt as incredulous as Goliath looking at David, just fewer projectiles.

If prison libraries stock books like this then I think those against water-boarding as "cruel and unusual" have been straining out gnats through their teeth.

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Wednesday, April 24, 2013

No, He Isn't French.

Murder in Mesopotamia (Hercule Poirot, #14)Murder in Mesopotamia by Agatha Christie
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My first introduction to Poirot via the written word, and I can't get David Suchet out of my head. For the most part it doesn't matter: the finicky Belgian seems to have possessed the poor chap, save for his age. He's too young to be Poirot, and the moustache ought to be just a wee smidge bigger. And yes, computer, I know it's not a word, I don't care. Not a full smidgen, not even a small smidgen, but a wee smidge. But again, it was save for his age, and that did jar me a good deal. Here I was expecting a Belgian with a bit of hair on the sides, and his head is described as an egg? Not fair to me and my poor nerves.

I've always considered myself a writer, though non-practicing, of course. But this authoress went out of her way to shun credit: the person that wrote this let us know that the person that wrote this was informing us that someone else wrote it. In other words, Christie summons a Dr. to call in a nurse that happened to be present to write the account, so Poirot has unusually little face time. I presume it's unusual, that is—as I said, it's my first Poirot. In any case, I loved it. Light, flippant, and not too obvious (yes, I admit it, I was wrong: not only did I not guess the murderer, but the method of murder escaped me). I was right on a couple of less important mysteries, though, so my back shall be patted.

Christie is also a well known authoress for a reason, and the heroine / authoress of this little book is just great. She describes one character as being straight out of a P. G. Wodehouse novel, while another affords her no greater opportunity for kindness than "he must have been a lovely baby..." She's saucy, practical and entirely reminiscent of Lewis' old school of English innkeepers that view customers as a nuisance, but tempered with self-deprecating homour, compassion, and a good deal of grit. Just another fun book.

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Terry Pratchett, You Saucy Mynks.

Mort (Discworld, #4)Mort by Terry Pratchett
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Two things to note. First, I'm sorry Terry, I've resisted you too long. Second, if you giggle like a girl, and you are, in fact, not a girl, it can be rather uncomfortable to do so in a library full of huge hairy smelly unwashed homeless people that know where you sleep and carry pipe wrenches in leather holsters on their hips.

This book was just straight funny. Pratchett has a Wodehousian turn of phrase, and I caught both a line from Mortimer and a philosophy from Lewis, who of course published it some forty or fifty years before I oh-so-proudly formulated it for myself. Pratchett tends to get a bit dry when grits his teeth, spits on his hands and tries to force a plot into the book, but aside from said plot, the book was just great. Complete with red-headed freckled princess, awkward clumsy kid who takes an apprenticeship with a rather lonely Death (bones optional was the selling point), Death's adopted daughter and a two thousand year old wizard; yes, this book was fun. Kudos, Little Miss Ligon.

A few snippets:

After five minutes Mort came out of the tailor's wearing a loose fitting brown garment of imprecise function, which had been understandably unclaimed by a previous owner and had plenty of room for him to grow, on the assumption that he would grow into a nineteen-legged elephant.

(A bit later, talking to Death:)

"What are we going to do now?"
"These were new today—yesterday, I mean."
"Father said the shop was famous for its budget clothing," said Mort, running to keep up.

She had silver hair, and eyes with a pearly sheen to them, and the kind of interesting but impractical long dress that tends to be worn by tragic heroines who clasp single roses to their bosom while gazing soulfully at the moon.

An inner-city area sorely in need either of governmental help or, for preference, a flamethrower...It didn't have so much a neighbourhood as an ecology...

(Of a river:) Even before it entered the city it was slow and heavy with the silt of the plains, and by the time it got to The Shades even an agnostic could have walked across it.

(A wizard's front door plaque:) Igneous Cutwell, DM (Unseen), Marster of the Infinit, Illuminartus, Wyzard to Princes, Gardian of the Sacred Portalls, If Out leave Maile with Mrs. Nugent Next Door.

...the kind of person who throws all his socks at the wall and wears the ones that don't stick...

Yes, this book was fun.

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Well and Glad.

Outliers: The Story of SuccessOutliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Gladwell, par for his course, remains preeminently readable and manages to assemble a pleasant, interesting book. But of his books, this one I liked the least. Perhaps too much Dunnett and Wiman make a simple sentence vaguely soporific; perhaps sleeping in my car in sub-zero weather leaves me less rested than I thought.

Either way, it was still a quick and pleasant little read. His thesis, simply (and far more pedantically) put, is that the miraculous stories of success of which we are aware are less miraculous than they seem. Maybe there was a sandbar, maybe mom did pack me a lunch, whatever. Rather than a miracle, a perfect sort of storm occurs, getting Bill Gates thousands of free hours on a computer when such a thing was unheard of, and getting Oppenheimer off of an attempted murder rap (yes, murder). Thus, when opportunity appears they are in the perfect position to grab the proverbially knocking hand and either take it off at the shoulder or drag the body in with it.

So the vast majority of professional Canadian hockey players are born toward the end of the Canadian hockey cut-off year: a kid that's seven years eleven months tends to be larger and stronger than a kid that's seven and a day, so he makes the team, gets the practice, gets sent to the camp, gets the extra practice, gets noticed by scouts, gets drafted, gets brain damage and ends up spending his fortune being fed soup through a straw; long live the Queen. The flurry of Jewish doctors and lawyers succeed because they were descended from the flurry of Jewish immigrants that had to work obscenely long and hard hours, passing the habit on to their children (who wiped the floor with the lazy earlier immigrants, like us), and many other circumstances, including Asian math skills of all things.

The magic behind success? 10,000 hours. Simple, straightforward. If you want to excel at anything, if you want to master anything, put in 10,000 hours. Or just marry aforementioned Jewish doctor or lawyer.

This book ends, however, with a rare, hushed, even sacred view of Gladwell's personal life—a touch that's absent his other analytical books, a touch that ushers the reader into the realm of confidant and Gladwell into the realm of human. So intimate a gesture intimates to me that when I part the covers of his next book, I'll probably sit back, light a pipe and greet an old friend whose conversation I've ever enjoyed, but one that I feel I'm finally getting to know.

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Saturday, March 9, 2013

Broke and Broker

The BrokerThe Broker by John Grisham
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is probably my favourite of Grisham's books, despite a smattering of sentimental cliches that make me desire to inspect the brains of some fairly central characters with a fire poker. The worst one:

(She:) "Have I offended you?"
(He:) "You could smile more."
She nodded slightly and her eyes were instantly moist. She looked away, through the window, and said, "I have so little to smile about."

This type of thing, along with the rhythm (wretched) of most of his prose convinces me that Grisham ought to be a screenwriter, not a novelist. The singular strength that has propelled him to stardom is that of his plots, which usually aren't bad. It is a rare writer that can combine intriguing plots with good prose and fully developed characters. Grisham is one for three, and that one is occasionally debatable. Yet, with his characters flat and his prose poor, I'm still reading him due to my inability to pass up fifty cent books when coins are flirting with the pens in my pocket. I'm just not reading him fast enough to be done with him before I'm annoyed at him.

To top it off, he spent six months in Italy "researching" gelato, architecture, cuisine and language for this book. I empathize. Let us say with the Hindu: life is suffering, get a helmet. P. T. Barnum's famous quip that no one ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public gives me hope to one day become independently wealthy. Perhaps my first book ought to take place in the Mediterranean instead of Mexico...

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Wednesday, February 20, 2013


Arguably: Selected EssaysArguably: Selected Essays by Christopher Hitchens
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The late Christopher Hitchens shared one tremendous skill with his less notorious brother: the boys can write. And they aren't cowards. They remind me—I apologize in advance—they remind me of the scene in Miss Congeniality when fifty contestants for Miss Universe or whatever say they want world peace and then Sandra Bullock wants harsher punishments for parole violators. I get exasperatedly amused at Dufflepuddish people violently bowing to the variable light breeze of being PC and (all hail) Tolerant. No wonder they do yoga—I get whiplash just listening to them. But neither of the Hitchens brothers are cowed by the intelligentsia. Neither of the brothers are PC, nor are they crass, as most of those attempting to avoid the PC charge are. To top it off, Christopher Hitchens' fame gorged itself on the miracle-grow of (gasp) Intolerance in a world that tolerates everything but intolerance.

This book is quite simply splendid, and has something for everyone. From P.G. Wodehouse to John Brown there is great stuff on almost every page. Hitchens' research is impeccable, though his conclusions are often flat-out wrong (says the twenty-seven year-old who happens to be nine years into his four year degree). But wrong conclusions are often more profitable than simply reading all the things that you'd have written yourself, which seems a type of mental asexuality, if you will. Only with the introduction of that which is wholly other can your mind give birth to new thoughts, new life; without the stimulation of controversy the mind atrophies. And Hitchens, true to form, manages to polarize even from beyond the grave. He'd be pleased to know that a girl (whose appearance leaned toward the ailing piscine, as well as being endowed with... "sufficient" ears attached at right angles) managed to challenge the record for the standing high-jump when I expressed my reservations regarding Hitchens' views on Lincoln. (I shrieked "NO HE DIDN'T" in Applebees, and my server ended up wearing my root beer. I tipped well.)

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Friday, January 25, 2013

For a Glory and a Covering

May the Mennonites forgive me. And the Pierces. And Becca in an odd month. I am to be found in 1 Corinthians 11:1-16: the head-covering passage. And, to paraphrase Lewis, if your mind is shut, let at least your Bible be open.

The typical reading of this passage is that "a woman's hair is her covering; let's move on." And to an extent that's all good and true; verse fifteen is anything but ambiguous: a woman's hair is her glory and covering. But, should you have the misfortune to read the entire passage with one of your eyes only halfway closed, you'll come across a problem that cannot be satisfied without extremely... well, "flexible" exegesis. That problem is verse six: if a woman is uncovered, then let her also be shorn.

If the only covering in the passage is hair, we're in trouble. For Paul would be saying, "If a woman has no hair, then let her hair also be cut off." No, there have to be two heads spoken of. And the only other "head" for a woman in this passage is man.

So here's my thesis: verses 1-5a are speaking of the heads that verse three mentions: God the head of Christ, Christ the head of man, man the head of woman. After that, hair is introduced and the types of "heads" alternate, but not before. This would mean that verse six could be interpreted as "If a woman is not under authority..." This also makes it clear as to why men ought not to be covered: the authority over a man ought to be Christ, not the woman. And if a woman is acting like a man then she might as well look like one, and all hail Marine haircuts. But if looking like a man is shameful for a woman, then let her act in a feminine manner: let her be covered.

So the fundamental principle of the passage? Men are to act like men. We ought to take responsibility. Women are to act like women. They ought to submit to man as Christ submitted to God.

But this has further ramifications. Christ's submission to God was in spite of His equality with God, and a woman's submission to her husband is in spite of her equality, which she ought not to consider something to be grasped at. The passage goes on to say that neither woman nor man is independent of the other. So—and be careful here—a woman's relationship with her husband ought to be similar to that of Christ's relationship to God: a wife ought to be able to say a good half of John 15 without batting an eyelash.

And of course, if her hair happens to hit the small of her back or at least go "poof" in a light drizzle, all the better.


Saturday, January 5, 2013

The Inked Girl With Poor Instincts Regarding Nature

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest (Millennium, #3)The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest by Stieg Larsson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Only one review for the trilogy; I know, I'm tight lipped. But if they aren't read as a series they really don't make sense. Each book deals with a different aspect of Salander: her genius and dysfunction, her history, and finally her redemption. The plot was intricate, the prose was acceptable and the characters fantastic. Horrible people, but well drawn, like some of da Vinci's sketches: one wonders why on earth he bothered drawing that particular person. True, if you see a car wreck you'll see people around with cameras, but that type of morbid fascination doesn't always extend to the corners in art. With Larsson, it kind of does.

There is a disturbing moral vacuity that one finds on reading him. Adultery, theft, murder--all are acceptable. Rape is horrific, burning a rapist alive is good. Sodomy is appalling, unless it's in revenge. The one moral standard seems to be rage: if they deserve it, you damned well better give it. And smile as you do. So no, I'd not recommend him for much beyond a character sketch, except to a reader with a fine-toothed comb.

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Ecce, Charles!

Descent Into HellDescent Into Hell by Charles Williams

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Charles the Inkling Williams. Wow. I've been planning on reading him for some time, but had been hesitant due to mixed reviews from unnamed persons. Upon finding Frank Peretti upon their shelves, I happily heaved their advice overboard and bought the first Williams I could find, which happened to be Descent Into Hell.

/>Reviewing this book is hard. It's a type of Supernatural Realism with a heavy dose of Mythical Faerie, and blended with some of the most superb, even sublime prose that I've encountered. Nothing really happens in the book, even with a succubus and opened graves, nothing really happens. You feel, at alternating chapters, as if you're walking either up a flight of stairs into an open vista of a far green country bordered by breakers curled like a lover's wet hair, or as if you're walking down a flight of stairs into a cellar of unnamed and unknown horrors with a whispered voice hissing "mad, mad, you are mad..."

There are two truly "main" characters, and then there are a handful of peripheral characters and one central character. There are two, yea verily even three timelines coinciding; there is Lilith and Death, there is Poetry and Life. There is the Real, and there is the Fake; Zion and Gomorrah, and I could explain the entire book without giving a single thing away.

The only explanation for Williams being as unknown as he is is two-fold: either this is by far his best work, or he was simply overshadowed by the vast output of Lewis and the incomparable genius of Tolkien. But this book is so very worth the read. I'll be adding him to my shelves as often as I find him.

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Wodehousian Fun