Review: Bad Monkeys

Bad Monkeys
Bad Monkeys by Matt Ruff
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I saw a review for Bad Monkeys in our local paper, which noted that the author, Matt Ruff, lives in Seattle. The review must have said something intriguing, because I threw a sample of the novel onto my e-reader before heading off on vacation. (But I’ve just re-read the review, and I’m not sure what it was that caught my eye. Ah well, nevermind). I plowed through two other books while lazing around Carmel-by-the-Sea, then read the sample. At the end of the sample, I clicked “buy,” without giving it a second thought.

And finished the short novel in less than 24 hours. I’m not complaining, just giving you some context. This is a quasi-novel. I don’t mean it’s a so-called “novella,” I mean it’s a quasi-sci-fi, quasi-fantasy, quasi-young-adult, quasi-thriller of a novel. Bad Monkeys seems to dip it’s toes into whatever’s convenient to tell the story.

Normally, this would be terrible. If a review told me that a novel was a little of this, a little of that, I wouldn’t bother reading the book (which just goes to show you how useful reviews are, he said in a quasi-hypocritical fashion). But Matt Ruff manages a smooth writing style and a voice that makes the book easy to read. That whole willing-suspension-of-disbelief thing? I was willing. I didn’t need things explained or justified to me.

Even when the narrator backtracks, contradicts, lies. Even when the deus ex machina is so thick you’d think you were in church. If you don’t want to experience a novel that ret-cons itself as it goes, don’t read Bad Monkeys. But if you want to have a little silly fun, go ahead.

Sounds like I’m damning with faint praise, but I don’t mean to. It’s one thing to come up with a plastic gun that shoots heart attacks at people, and populate a casino with ax-wielding killer clowns. But to do so and maintain any kind of narrative integrity is something to be admired. And enjoyed.

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Review: Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game

Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game
Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game by Michael Lewis
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’ve always been a baseball outsider—did not play it in my youth, was not a fan of any professional teams, did not tune in to the world series, ever. I attended a few Wichita Aeros games as a kid, but I never sat through an entire inning. And as I grew up, I came to identify baseball with a kind of elitism. I’ll be honest- I came to view baseball players and their fans as a bunch of good-old-boys, derisive of anything that didn’t fit their subjective view of “American,” conservative to the core. (Yeah, I got issues, I should see a shrink.)

But now I live in Seattle, and there’s this pro team here, and I got civic pride. Usually, I follow the Mariners closely until about the middle of May, and then I give up. This year is different, and I’ll cop to being a fair-weather fan. As I write this, they’re first in the AL West, their best start since 2003.

I’m older now and try to be a little less judgey, and I’ve come to find most ball players and their fans are not so bad. Nevertheless, I still feel like an outsider. Moneyball is a book for baseball outsiders. On the one hand, it caters to a point of view that, allegedly, baseball traditionalists hate. On the other hand, it’s a shortcut to a quicker understanding of what’s going on, out there on the diamond. My mistake was treating baseball as a game. Baseball is a season. Moneyball reinforces the idea that it’s not one game of nine innings, but an entire season of 162 games that has meaning.

That’s maybe an oblique way to put it, but you either like number crunching or you don’t. If you do, you’re going to love this book. If you don’t care for numbers, don’t worry: Michael Lewis also tells a story, about the Oakland As and Billy Beane. And that’s where “baseball is a season” comes in, because if you want to like baseball, as an outsider, you have to get used to the idea that it takes an entire season to tell a team’s story.

There’s nothing wrong with enjoying any one game. Grab a beer and your transistor radio, or head out to the park and munch peanuts in your seats on the third-base line. You can even have fun without knowing a darn thing about baseball. In years past, I’ve done exactly that.

But I’m a nerd, and Moneyball spoke to me. It told me that being a baseball outsider provides a unique perspective. If I could go back in time and become a baseball insider, just to be a better fan for the Mariners now, I wouldn’t do it. Moneyball’s approach, the way it’s introduced me to in-depth baseball, fits my personality much better.

Short version of the above: do you hate baseball? Ask yourself if what you actually hate is baseball people. Because the story of baseball from April to October is beautiful.

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Review: Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil: A Savannah Story

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil: A Savannah Story
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil: A Savannah Story by John Berendt
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I read this book. I’m not sure what else to say. I didn’t find it as fascinating as I’d hoped. But it wasn’t bad. This is all so vague, and I apologize for that: I feel that Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil was a book that straddled too many tonal fences and in the end there’s not much to say about.

But I am a loquacious little keyboard pounder, so I’ll manage.

I read a free sample on my e-reader and decided I liked it enough but wanted to get it from the library instead of purchasing it. For two weeks the opening, with the narrator interviewing Jim Williams, only to be interrupted by Billy Hanson, stayed with me. Of course, I’d already seen the movie, so what stayed with me was Kevin Spacey, Jude Law, and John Cusack.

Once I got the whole book to myself, I found I didn’t know what I was reading. Was this a biography, a murder mystery, a court-room drama, a memoir, a travel-guide? The movie, at least, settled on a story. The book did not.

I know it’s usually pointless to compare the book to the movie, as one might as well compare apples to horseshoes. They often serve entirely different purposes. But I can’t help but think that, having seen the movie, I was better equipped to make it through the book. I was able to give the various characters some measure of motive and personality, that I did not otherwise see in the book.

Although, let me clear, there are some very interesting characters. Joe Odom, Minerva, and of course, The Lady Chablis, to name a few. But they’re side characters, and have no bearing on the “plot.”

Midnight in the Garden of Evil is considered a “non-fiction novel” (ala Truman Capote and Norman Mailer,” and has won awards. That’s all well and good. For me, this amounted to an amusing beach read, and nothing more. Which is not a bad thing at all.

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