Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Free Fall by Robert Crais

Title: Free Fall
Author: Robert Crais
Publisher: Bantam Books (1993)

I'm posting from the road this week as The Great SoCal Ballpark Road Trip continues. Ballpark Road Trips are a staple of my travels but I've not once ended one at a celebration of books. So in excitement of a week ending at the L.A. Times Festival of Books (featuring tons of authors, including the estimable Robert Crais), Michael and I are serving up a joint post this month that may surprise you. You'll want to surf on over to It Rains... You Get Wet  for a Free Fall film review.

Free Fall is the fourth novel to feature the World's Greatest Detective, Elvis Cole. Adding to his body of work starring Elvis Cole and Joe Pike, Robert Crais continues to defy conventions, such as the emotionally unapproachable PI, and expectations of employment, such as payment.

That Crais.

Our story begins when a nervous client seeks Cole's help in discovering the source of her fiance's anxiety. Quite literally, that sentence sums up our scenario. Of course, things get complicated pretty quickly. The fiance is a cop and he shows up soon after the client leaves (not so pleasantly drunk partner in tow) giving excuses for his anxiety. Despite the excuses, Cole does his job and digs deeper. It appears the explanation is infidelity but our plucky client - in what I think is a mighty hilarious scene - doesn't accept that explanation. The plot thickens, Pike is called, cue the World's Greatest in action.

****some comments below contain mild spoilers****

Right out of the gate, we've got the Cole we've come to love: Irreverent, persistent, susceptible to sob stories in pleasant packages, adroit at B&E, incurable romantic, etc. (And when he describes how people are acting he says things like "She clutched the purse even tighter and gave miserable." I enjoy that "gave" business.) However, around the first turn it becomes clear that there's a seriousness to this story which invites a closer analysis of the story and its outcome.

Free Fall is very much informed by the tragedy of the Rodney King beating and the L.A. riots that followed the trial. Several times while reading I got the impression that this was a vehicle for RC to express his idea of a more just outcome for despicable people who do despicable things. Whether this is true or not, he certainly was able to present a story that incorporates the complicated and touchy issues of duty, loyalty, redemption, forgiveness and retribution. (On a personal note, I wasn't satisfied with the book's outcome but that's not really the point of this post.)

In the midst of a topic as huge as this, RC keeps his main characters true to form. I actually had to set the book down for a few minutes just to get a good laugh out during the scene where Cole is being questioned after he and Pike are arrested.

Micelli leaned forward across the table and gave me hard. "You're holding out for nothing. Your buddy's already come clean."
Micelli nodded. ...
I gave them the laugh.

I can't imagine Cole was laughing even remotely as hard as I was. And it's not just that Pike wouldn't do this, it's that RC is so damn good at writing the character he's created in Pike.

"That makes it, what, ten or twelve blocks from here? Might as well be in Fresno."
Pike said, "If we have limits, they are self-imposed." Always count on Pike for something like that.

Or like this:

I had left the Farmer's Market before Pike, and I had made good time, but when I got home there he was, as if he had been there for hours, as if he had been here and there at the same time...
I said, "How'd you beat me?"
Pike put down the cat. "I didn't know it was a race." You see how he is?"

And this isn't even going into RC's wonderful use of "whir" as a way to get us to understand the physicality of Pike. It's Cole's head I prefer to be in but as a person who appreciates the creation of a pitch perfect character, it's Pike who makes my mind salivate with imagination-envy.

The supporting characters were interesting, however, I found them more representative than fully-realized. This was one of the things that gave me the impression that this was RC trying to say something specific (along with Chapters 17 and 18). No matter how much I might have enjoyed a secondary character I never lost the feeling that they were an expression of a perspective rather than a natural part of the story. This didn't affect my enjoyment of the book, but it was something I never lost my awareness of.

I enjoy RC's work so much that I tend to focus on what I enjoy but there are a couple things that I don't like so here's my short list. I'm always curious about what other fans think of my quibbles.

1. Lack of distinction between the dialogue of different characters. Stylistically, I often can't tell the difference between characters when they speak.

2. It irks me when only certain groups of people speak in dialect. If dialects are going to be used as descriptor "tags" then every character should be in dialect.

3. Crais relentlessly marks the "other" which relentlessly assumes a "default." This is, by far, the thing that bothers me the most when I'm reading.

Free Fall isn't at the top of the list of my favorite Cole/Pike novels but there is quite a bit to enjoy here. Its ambitious paralleling of real world events gives it a depth that kept me turning over scenes and issues in my mind for the length of the book, and any book that gets you thinking that much is worth a read. And, as always, Cole and Pike are irresistible to anyone looking to follow a couple great characters as they solve a mystery.

rating: 3 of 5 stars

Coming up next:
Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton

Links to previous joint posts:

Monday, April 18, 2011

Hell, It Be Frozen Solid Now

Not only have the Saints been Super Bowl champs but I have been described as stylish! Holy damn! Michael, my partner in crime joint posting, included me in a wonderful group for this fun blogiverse award. Thanks for the ht, Michael - and for highlighting some very nice blogs I was excited to check out for myself. And, now, to play along...

1. I'm goofy-footed.

2. I dream of taking sword fighting lessons but spend most of my spare cash on all things horse so the lessons never materialize.

3. I am a pacifist by nature but I never miss an opportunity to visit militarily influenced museums (and, of course, there's #2).

4. Of the first 23 years of my life, 15 did not include television (the 8 TV years were not in chronological order) resulting in massive and often humorous gaps in my pop culture knowledge.

5. Even though I am about to celebrate 5 years in a happy partnership, I have friends who still can't believe I got married.

6. I've been a vegetarian since conception. This trait has taught me that a large segment of the population takes people's food choices personally. (Vegetarianism has not always had the advantage of its modern popularity.)

7. With frightening accuracy, I can judge the amount of feces it takes to equal 0.3g (bet they never have to extract DNA from poop on CSI - but I don't have to wear stilettos to work either so it's probably a fair trade-off).

Disclaimer: Along with sharing seven things about me, I am supposed to pass this along to seven other bloggers. However, my blog consumption has been extremely limited of late and so those I would recognize have already been recognized with various blogiverse awards. Instead, you get a bonus piece of information...

8. I am a closet delinquent (see disclaimer).

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Social Network (2010) Guest Review

sgwordy asked me to do a guest review for one of the most widely recognized movies of the past year: The Social Network.  And when sgwordy asks, who am I to refuse? [editor's note: well played, Dr Musacha, well played]

I resisted seeing TSN for quite some time.  First of all, I’m not a Facebooker.  I don’t “book” the “face” or whatever it is that people do on that site (find old college acquaintances and swap baby pics?).  Nothing about the trailers made the movie seem that intriguing to me.  And the word on the street is that the makers played fast and loose with the facts (“based on a true story” doesn’t mean much).  That doesn’t really bother me, and I won’t go into the details of what the movie gets wrong (a Google search will clear that up quickly), but it seems odd to watch a biopic that I know is half baloney going in.

Then a funny thing happened: everybody and their brother started talking about what a travesty it was that TSN didn’t win the Oscar for Best Picture.  King’s Speech?  A cute, folksy little throwaway tale.  But TSN was supposed to be this generation defining masterpiece.  I was dubious, but my time isn’t so valuable that I can’t sacrifice a couple hours to see what all the fuss is about.

Warning: I’ll try to avoid out-and-out spoilers, but if you like to see movies completely fresh, you might want to wait until you’ve checked it out before reading.  Also, there’s a little harsh language below, though nothing too offensive I hope.

The Story in a Nutshell:
Harvard student Mark Zuckerberg is a socially inept computer whiz who, after breaking up with his girlfriend Erica, inadvertently launches a website that becomes a campus phenomenon using his hacking and programming skills.  His efforts attract the attention of Harvard’s elite (in the form of the Winklevoss twins), who conscript Zuckerberg to code for their fledgling social website.  But Mark instead teams with his best friend Eduardo to create the basis of what becomes Facebook.  The rest of the movie involves the rise of the world’s most famous social networking site superimposed with the temptation of Zuckerberg (in this case, by former Napster founder Sean Parker) away from the people who truly care, leading to his eventual fall in the form of a pair of lawsuits that form the backdrop of the film.

What Worked for Me:
* The Story Structure – For a movie ostensibly about website construction and corporate litigation, TSN plays out at a fairly rapid clip without getting bogged down in boring details.  Credit Director David Fincher and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin for focusing most of the attention on the characters themselves rather than detailing the formation of Facebook itself in too much detail.  By keeping things tight and character-oriented, the film really gives you a chance to get to know these people (as interpreted by the actors/script) so you can develop a vested interest in what happens to them.

* The Dialogue – I heard a lot about the first scene in this movie…some have suggested that it’s the best opening scene in film history.  I think that’s a ludicrous claim, but the opening is well done and establishes the main character quickly.  What it really shows is the snappy, intelligent dialogue that infuses this movie with a lot of energy.  There are a number of great and memorable lines, though one of the two best was heavily featured in the trailer (“If you guys were the inventors of Facebook, you’d have invented Facebook.”)  The other?  The last line of the opening scene, and I won’t ruin it.

* Justin Timberlake – I never cared for his music, but Timberlake is on the brink of making my short list of actors that, in the right role, would compel me to see a movie just due to their presence.  Here he is outstanding as the slimy, spineless, conniving Sean Parker and absolutely steals every scene he’s in.  The final confrontation between him and Eduardo in the Facebook offices was so note-perfect, it was worth seeing the movie just for that.  Speaking of…

* Andrew Garfield as Eduardo Saverin – Garfield was BY FAR the most sympathetic character in this movie (more on this in a second) and was its true protagonist in my eyes.  Without him, I doubt I would have finished TSN.  His character arc, starting from a geeky, unsure computer nerd who partners with Zuckerberg to create Facebook, only to slowly find himself being cast aside, is heartbreaking to watch.  The lawsuit involving the twins is a crock of nonsense…they contributed nothing to the formation of Facebook and are portrayed as motivated by their injured egos.  But Eduardo’s lawsuit is very personal.  His contributions to Facebook bring Eduardo respect and social acceptance…that his best friend would strip that credit away is tragic.  One gets the impression that Eduardo is less interested in money than in setting the record straight and receiving the credit he deserves.

That’s a lot that worked, but it’s strongly counterbalanced by two major strikes.

What Didn’t Work for Me:
* Zuckerberg – It’s not the portrayal.  Jessie Eisenberg does a fine job of bringing the character to life.  And it’s not anything about Zuckerberg’s story, which is plenty compelling.  The problem is that Zuckerberg (the movie version…I’m not familiar enough to comment on the real life person) is a complete jackass.  This movie owes its roots to 80’s style films where a nerdy guy with a heart of gold starts out unpopular but wins the respect of everyone when he demonstrates what a swell person he is.  But Zuckerberg is not a swell person…he’s an unsympathetic jerk with a caustic personality from the very start.  There’s not much of a character arc to speak of, no great life lesson learned, no personal growth or maturation, not really even a background that would explain why Zuckerberg holds everyone around himself in such contempt…it’s the story of a talented asshole who invents something cool and treats everyone he knows like crap.  That’s the lion’s share of the movie, and your enjoyment of TSN will hinge on whether you can get personally involved in something like that.

* The Sexism…my God, the Sexism – If you’re a believer that all of human civilization is fueled by the increasingly elaborate efforts of men to impress the opposite sex, thus marginally increasing their chances at being granted access to their lady parts, then you and your caveman sensibilities will definitely enjoy TSN.  Now let me say upfront that I’m not some oversensitive, hippy drippy whiner baby who gets offended at the drop of a hat, but the treatment of women in this film is disgusting by any objective standard.  According to TSN, women are not people, but rather trophies with breasts that can be acquired through advancement in the social and financial worlds.  No woman ever contributed in any meaningful way to the rise of Facebook, though there were plenty around to give lap dances as a reward for success.  And remember, most of the women involved in this movie (at least at the beginning) are students at Harvard.  So apparently the country’s most respected academic institution has a student body comprised of male geniuses and female arm candy.  Nice.  In retrospect, I notice a lot of these “Social Network got robbed at the Oscars!” articles came from young to middle aged male internet writers, none of whom bothered to mention the misogynistic undertones of the film.

The Verdict:
The Social Network did a lot right.  The screenplay and direction were excellent, the narrative is about as compelling as the source material would allow, and there are a couple classic characters in here.  But the main plot is a character study of an unapologetic douche bag, which is going to get tiresome for many viewers before the film is complete.  And I don’t see how a film that was “robbed” of Best Picture can be more blatantly sexist than most teenage sex romp comedies.  If you’re a 25 year old hipster who is entirely convinced that you’re part of the most clever generation to walk the earth, then you’ll love this movie to death.  On the other hand, if you’ve got a modicum of sense in your head then the best case scenario is you’ll find it to be a well-written, well-directed flick with some glaring flaws.  Best Picture it is NOT.

Many thanks to Dr Musacha for his guest reviews. His real name might not be Musacha, but Dr is his real title. If you're interested in other ways the Doctor spends his time when not unraveling the secrets near and dear to a cardiologist's heart (ha!), check out The Doctor and the Dude Show. You can also find him here and here.

Monday, April 11, 2011

My First Audiobook Completed: L. A. Outlaws

Title: L.A. Outlaws
Author: T. Jefferson Parker
Read by: David Colacci and Susan Ericksen
Publisher: Brilliance Audio (2008)

I've decided to report from the trenches. So...

(Post the First can be found here.
Post the Second can be found here.)

Location: Disc 10, Track Finished
Chapter: Whichever was the last.

I promise that I had all kinds of best intentions to post periodically as I made my way through my first audiobook but, due to one thing and another, it didn't happen. So then I thought I'd just do a nice review of the book at the end but I don't have very many nice things to say about the book; and the weather is just too darn good to say mean things right now. It's finally stopped raining, the wind has died down, the sun has come out and my mood is too good to waste on detailing all the reasons why L.A. Outlaws and sgwordy were not meant for each other. Instead, let's focus on the positive...

1. I finished an audiobook.
2. I've already tried a second audiobook.*
3. My third audiobook is queued up for my bike ride to work tomorrow.
4. I finally adjusted to the readers and let them take care of the story for me.
5. A bunch of people generously shared their audiobook tips with me which helped a great deal in accepting the format.

* My second audiobook I abandoned fairly quickly. I didn't like all the choices by the reader but (huge step here) he was not the reason I stopped. I gave up on it because I wasn't enjoying the story at all. The book was Going Bovine by Libba Bray and if some of the going bovine could have shown up sooner I might have tried to stick with it but it just wasn't working for me. It's an odd business between me and Libba Bray. I love pretty much everything she writes except her books. She is so dang funny but I can't seem to get in to her books. Ah well... moving on...

My third audiobook is The Red Badge of Courage. This must be a short book because it's only 4.5hrs of audio (unabridged). Here's hoping I have better luck with this one. The important thing here, though, is that I can do the format, I can focus on the stories and take or leave them dependent on the story and not the audio. Success!

Many thanks to Michael for all his encouragement with the format and help in picking some books. He got me started and my library's inventory took me the rest of the way.

What audiobook have you been listening to lately?

Monday, April 4, 2011

The Hakawati by Rabih Alameddine

Title: The Hakawati
Author: Rabih Alameddine
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf (2008)

This is one of those books that, when I am finished, I hardly know how to describe it or what I thought of it. The short, short summary would be: Osama al-Kharrat returns to Beirut to be with his family and severely-ill father. During this time he remembers many stories that were told to him and many stories about his family, especially his grandfather who was a hakawati - a professional storyteller. This book is full of stories within stories within stories; at times super engaging and, at times, a bit boring. I'm not sorry I read it but I can only think of one person I know for sure would like it. Many others would probably like it but I'm only guessing at that point.

The publisher describes the book: In 2003, Osama al-Kharrat returns to Beirut after many years in America to stand vigil at his father's deathbed. As the family gathers, stories begin to unfold: Osama's grandfather was a hakawati, or storyteller, and his bewitching tales are interwoven with classic stories of the Middle East. Here are Abraham and Isaac; Ishmael, father of the Arab tribes; the beautiful Fatima; Baybars, the slave prince who vanquished the Crusaders; and a host of mischievous imps. Through Osama, we also enter the world of the contemporary Lebanese men and women whose stories tell a larger, heartbreaking tale of seemingly endless war, conflicted identity, and survival. With The Hakawati, Rabih Alameddine has given us an Arabian Nights for this century.

My copy of Arabian Nights remains unread on my shelf so I can't attest to that but it certainly can be bewitching. But, as I said, it can also be boring. I would imagine that a book filled with so many stories will rarely fully satisfy one person. I do think the book has the ability to appeal to a wide audience... I just can't quite figure who that audience is specifically. So, I liked it for the most part and I think there is a lot of beauty and interesting bits to be found within the pages. Alameddine includes quotes between the sections of the book and I'm going to share a few of my favorites here (in lieu of an actual review apparently).

...stories do not belong only to those who were present or to those who invent them, once a story has been told, it's anyone's, it becomes common currency, it gets twisted and distorted, no story is told the same way twice or in quite the same words, not even if the same person tells the story twice, not even if there is only ever one storyteller...  --Javier Marias

Man is eminently a storyteller. His search for a purpose, a cause, an ideal, a mission and the like is largely a search for a plot and a pattern in the development of his life story--a story that is basically without meaning or pattern.   --Eric Hoffer

Literature is the most agreeable way of ignoring life.   --Fernando Pessoa

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Bumper Sticker Humor

"At least the war on the environment is going well."