Friday, September 30, 2016

Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith

Title: Strangers on a Train
Author: Patricia Highsmith
Publisher: Harper & Brothers (1950) 

This month’s pick is the second of the year that we got from our reader poll at the end of last year. It's really fun to do these that were voted on. Interestingly for me, I happened to read my first Highsmith earlier this year so this was a second foray into this very popular author’s backlist.

For those that are new to our monthly series, this is when Michael reviews a film adapted from a book which gets a review here.

Click here for Michael's film review of Strangers on a Train 
at It Rains... You Get Wet

Title: Germane. :)

Synopsis: Two strangers meet on a train (who knew?) and one of them, Bruno, is a bit of an odd one. However, the second, Guy, clearly has odd lying in wait beneath the surface. When Bruno gets Guy drunk and then suggests they help each other out with some murdering, Guy is pretty sure he wants to say no. He does but he also underestimates just how much Bruno wants to “help.”

What works: How easily the reader can get lost in the minds of Highsmith’s characters. She gets you so close to these weirdos that you almost want a quick shower after you finish reading.

Bruno's super creepy but wholly sincere tokens. I just loved his "nice town" comment on the postcard.

What doesn’t: It’s spoilerish so highlight if interested: Immediately after Guy finds out about Miriam’s murder he could easily go to the police with everything that happened and solve this problem. Instead, the rest of the book happens. It was hard for me to get past that.

I know it’s slightly unfair of me to conflate this book with the other I read this year (The Talented Mr Ripley) but all the characters blend together, within this one and across to the other book I read. When Bruno and Guy sometimes overlapped, which was a little bit the point I think, I kept losing track of who was who but not really in a good way. And if I find her male characters uninspiring her female characters don’t even bear mentioning. Ugh. What a disappointment.

It’s kind of a boring book.

Overall: It’s not that I mind a slow burn type structure, it’s just that I’ve always found pathological self-justification tedious. On the one hand, Highsmith seems to wonderfully capture the pathos of her characters (I say seems because, really, how can I know? these people are that far off their rockers) but on the other hand, as the whiny, entitled mind-ramblings ramble on, I got bored. However, there is clearly a huge fan base out there for Highsmith so obviously YMMV.

Now about that movie... Don't forget to check out Michael's post. 

rating: 2 of 5 stars

Coming up next:  
The Sentinel by Jeffrey Konvit

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas (pere)

Title: The Three Musketeers
Author: Alexandre Dumas, pere
Publisher: Century eBooks (2012) Originally serialized March to July 1844 in Le Siecle

We do a lot of older books in our series but we’re hanging out in the way, WAY back machine this month. I had a hankering to read some Dumas so I threw out a couple of titles. It wasn’t until I actually started re-reading The Three Musketeers that I recalled I’m not the biggest fan of this particular Dumas and I don’t think I’ve previously ever actually made it to the end. I’m curious to hear what Michael thought of it. I have to say my Dumas of re-reading choice is The Count of Monte Cristo. But, even if I’m reading a Dumas that’s not a fave I still enjoy their larger than life vitality and my preoccupied musings on the author himself.

For those that are new to our monthly series, this is when Michael reviews a film adapted from a book which gets a review here.

Click here for Michael's film review of The Three Musketeers 
at It Rains... You Get Wet

Seriously, though, if you don’t know a lot about Alexandre Dumas, pere I highly recommend doing a bit of reading. You can start with everyone’s favorite Wikipedia or go here or here or here. And if, in your reading, you notice a mention of his father, a General in the French army, rest assured his story is pretty compelling, too. (And you can read about it in this great book that I never lose a chance to recommend.)

Whoa? This won a Pulitzer? Guess I got my copy before that happened.


But what about those musketeers? Well, as with many of Dumas’ novels they’ve been translated into about a 100 languages and are very popular in many English speaking countries. Film adaptations come out on the regular and playwrights adapt it as well (Dumas was a playwright before he was a novelist so I wonder if he ever adapted his own work for the stage?), but I’ll still include a synopsis. D’Artagnan is a hot-headed, talented youth who sets out for the city with very little outside of his embarrassing mount (quickly sold), his father’s axioms, and his mother’s cure-all recipe for injuries (liberally applied). Turns out all a bold, resourceful person needs is those few items and before you know it you’ll be making friends with those you were previously meant to duel. After offending the titular musketeers one right after the other, he becomes fast friends with them after getting to kill some of the Cardinal’s guards (The Cardinal is our resident baddie.). D'Artagnan and his new friends then get up to all sorts of hijinks in the midst of court and international intrigue.

So while it's not my favorite it is hard to resist the charm of characters who feel compelled to sword fight over a shoulder jostle. The plot twists around with fun cliffhangers and the baddies are sinister enough to satisfy and provide a good counter to the heroes. It's a fun, swashbuckling tale but there's real depth to be found, as well. It's what makes Dumas so easy to come back to again and again. Fun and humor are always there but so is something to really bite into.

Not to mention those quietly genius lines

Monsieur, I love men of your kidney... 

Let us say in passing that he had changed his baldric and relinquished his cloak.

"Oh, good lord," cried Porthos, "what precautions for the study of theology!"

Definitely give this one a go but don't stop here. Make sure you give Dumas a solid perusal. 

Now about that movie... Don't forget to check out Michael's post. 

rating: 3 of 5 stars

Coming up next:  
Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Why lie when the truth would do?

I was really excited to see The Eagle Huntress doco, and with good reason. As it turns out, Aisholpan and her family are immensely charming and lovely to spend time with. Their support for each other is inspiring and the young Aisholpan's hard work and dedication would encourage anyone to follow their dreams. I was even more interested in the fact that she was, as purported by the synopsis, the first woman to participate in the eagle hunting tradition of her family and nation.

Imagine my surprise when it turns out that wasn't true. And, moreover, that the truth is just as good if not better than the fiction the doco makers felt they needed to cultivate.

The Eagle Huntress Ancient Traditions and New Generations by Adrienne Mayor is well worth the read. Aisholpan is following in the traditions of the men and women who came before her and the truth inspires on its own merits.

I am wholly mystified by these film makers. Why lie when the truth would do?


Friday, July 29, 2016

52 Pickup by Elmore Leonard

Title: 52 Pickup
Author: Elmore Leonard
Publisher: Martin Secker & Warburg Ltd (1974) 

Apologies for the technical issues. Hopefully this time around all will be well. 

I don't know if Michael planned for us to post another Leonard tale almost 2 years to do the day from when we did one before but it's a fun coincidence. I had a great time with Hombre but, unfortunately, not at all with this title. (PS Michael, send me some of that warm weather!)

For those that are new to our monthly series, this is when Michael reviews a film adapted from a book which gets a review here.

Click here for Michael's film review of 52 Pickup 
at It Rains... You Get Wet

Title: Should have been called Not Even 1 Reason to Pickup Much Less 52.

Synopsis: A trio of criminals try to blackmail a businessman by exposing his infidelity. As it happens, they end up getting more than they bargained for with this particular businessman.

What works: Leonard's spare prose and snappy dialogue. I do like an author who let's the story tell itself.

What doesn't: For this reader, pretty much everything else. Mitch was so over the top about the only thing I found believable was the fact he thought his lame ass excuse re Cini was something he should say out loud. Barbara may as well have been called Convenient Mitch Decoration or Needed Plot Device. The union rep was ridiculous, Mitch's "straight talk" employee management scheme was just a little too easy and the criminals were really boring and stupid. I was already grinding my teach in chapter 3 so I knew this was going to be a rough one. One thing I'll say for it, I think you can figure out pretty quick whether it's a title for you or not. And even though I plugged away to the finish, I never came around to rooting for or caring if Mitch got the better of the bad guys.

I could go into the relentless violence against and exploitation of women, the one dimensional or non-existent roles for anyone who doesn't look like Mitch, the faux sexual liberation theme but, really, I think my point has been made re this title. 

Overall: Even this gem of a line didn't make it worth the read. 

"Well, I guess you'll think of a way," Vic said, "if that's what you want to do, light up a briefcase."
"It's kind of what I want to do," Mitchell said. 

Now about that movie... Don't forget to check out Michael's post. 

rating: 2 of 5 stars

Coming up next:  
Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Life of Pi by Yann Martel

Title: Life of Pi
Author: Yann Martel
Publisher: Random House of Canada (2001) 

I take full responsibility for this month's pick. Life of Pi is my favorite book. I've been wanting to add it to our series for a few years now but never could bring myself to watch the movie. Finally, I asked if it was ok to add it even if I had no intention of ever watching the movie. Michael, ever a generous friend and partner in crime, readily agreed and here we are.

I remember first hearing about the rights being sold (many, many years ago now; long before the movie was ever filmed) and thinking how? HOW?? It's not possible! But beyond my limited ability to imagine an adaptation of this story what it really came down to is the fact that Pi, his view of life, and his incredible journey are fully alive in my mind. The connection I have with this book is the perfect expression, embodiment even, of my connection with Books. When a story comes alive in the mind it is the greatest, most satisfying, link between artist and consumer. It's the lightning we're all trying to catch every time we open a book. This is my lightning in a bottle. I sincerely hope you, Dear Reader, have one as well (here's a list of my faves; maybe you'll find one there:).

For those that are new to our monthly series, this is when Michael reviews a film adapted from a book which gets a review here.

Click here for Michael's film review of Life of Pi 
at It Rains... You Get Wet

Truly, I was going to try to do a proper review with attempts at objectivity yadda yadda yadda but since this is my favorite book all attempts merely spiraled into a love letter to one of my favorite reads so, um, hope you enjoy anyway? NB: I usually aim to keep my posts spoiler free but beware


Pi Patel, devotee of God/s and religion (and take backer of his name) is immigrating with his family to Canada in the 70s. The ship carrying them and some animals destined for new zoos (the former family business is zookeeping) sinks in the Pacific. Pi finds himself on a lifeboat with some very aggressive castaways. This book is the story of his survival. 

Brother, there's something I forgot to mention.

My love of this book is not limited to story and character. I think it's an amazing piece of craft. The writing is exquisite and the voice is impeccable. The richness of the writing is as layered as the story it tells.

I was more afraid that in a few words thrown out he might destroy something that I loved.

Pi is at once naive and keenly observant of the world. I think it's the secret to his resilience and what makes him uniquely suited to surviving his ordeal at sea.

The obsession with putting ourselves at the centre of everything is the bane not only of theologians but also of zoologists.

I'm particularly fond of this line as my enjoyment of this book has a lot to do with putting me and my interpretation at the center of it. Seems fitting. But I suspect a serious streak of self-consciousness in Martel, as well.

There are always those who take it upon themselves to defend God, as if Ultimate Reality, as if the sustaining frame of existence, were something weak and helpless.

Also a compelling line, not only for its relevance to the theme of the book but because, unlike the reviewer at The New Yorker (according to the backcopy anyway) I do not think the book is "an impassioned defense of zoos" but an impassioned defense of religion. It's why I didn't just say that Pi is a devotee of God/s. He is also quite drawn to religion. I think he finds as much satisfaction in the ceremonies and meditation of devotion as he does in simple faith. In fact, I'd argue that God/s without religion would not appeal to Pi at all. He might even call that "dry, yeastless factuality."

I mean compared to other animals, of course. Next to Richard Parker, I was deaf, blind and nose-dead. 

I distinctly remember first reading this book and thinking "Pi, what is wrong with you? Why are you hitting Richard Parker over the head instead of helping him?" And then, "Wait, what?" as I flipped back through the book wondering how it was I never noticed Richard Parker was a zoo animal and not a school friend. It's very nicely done subterfuge because it makes no difference to the story if you did think Richard Parker was a tiger (and I'd be curious to know how many readers weren't fooled) and, more importantly, it prepares the reader for what is to come. Things are perhaps not what they seem. Pay attention. It's a beautiful set-up.

There couldn't be both a hyena and a tiger in such a small space.

No, indeed, Pi there couldn't. If you've read this book only once I highly recommend reading it again. The book is filled with these gorgeous lines of double meaning. But, thankfully, this is not a coy piece of work. Each well-chosen word speaks to the situation at hand but a re-read shows that there is more at hand than one at first suspects.

Oh, the delight of the manufactured good, the man-made device, the created thing!

Did I mention that lovely voice? This book is filled with horrors but you're as likely to laugh and smile as despair. The tone is absolutely dead-on and I think I've never seen such excellent use of exclamation marks (Yep, I've just praised the punctuation, I told you this was a love letter!).

I will tell you a secret: a part of me was glad about Richard Parker. A part of me did not want Richard Parker to die at all, because if he died I would be left alone with despair, a foe even more formidable than a tiger.

I've never looked it up but I really hope there is a survival manual out there as shown in the book.

Only one important topic was not addressed: the establishing of alpha-omega relationships with major lifeboat pests.

What I can't help wondering is at what point did Pi start telling this story? I suspect it's right around:

I have survived so far, miraculously. Now I will turn miracle into routine. The amazing will be seen every day. 

I've said already that I think this is an impassioned defense of religion (which, by the way, has yet to be effective for this reader) but I've never been able to reconcile that with its comparison to zoos. Perhaps that's part of the expression of Pi's naivete. He seems to think it makes no difference to go with "the better story" but the sad fact of life is that it does. Stories, better or otherwise, do not exist in a vacuum but in societies. What society does with a story matters.

I continued to disbelieve my eyes. But it was a thrill to be deluded in such a high-quality way.

Now about that movie... Don't forget to check out Michael's post. 
My much read and beloved copy

rating: 5 of 5 stars

Coming up next:  
52 Pick-up by Elmore Leonard