A Word, and an Opposite Word, Film Title

In [movie title] filmmaker [director] serves up [colloquial adjective phrase] [something good, but in a tone that damns with faint praise] and [another adjective phrase but opposite of the first one] [some vague qualities that movies should have]. That’s certainly [vague or better yet oblique pun on film’s subject] for a [genre] movie set in the world of [film’s subject or setting].

[Director’s last name] ([previous film by director]) is a [remark about visual approach] first and foremost, and s/he never lets the audience forget it. [One word from film’s title] is a monument to h/er/is [phrase about ego], with [some minor non-plot oriented detail from one moment in the movie]. It’s [pithy one-word label]. And the hallmarks of the [label] are [go to visceral description of visuals] that [verb] the eye at first, but then before long [opposite verb] it. It’s a case of [that first adjective you damned with] [adjective suggesting too much or too little].

[Slightly sarcastic compliment for] the work of [cinematographer, photographer, production designer, even second director] [h/er/is or their name(s)] {if said crewperson has wikipedia entry, crib from it}. They’re the true stars of [one word from film’s title], far more than lead actors [catalog of actors].

The stars, playing [some archetype] are there to [box office or public consumption reference] [verb-ing] [something about their faces and/or bodies].

The story: A [stack up adjective] [character identified by trope], [something that either started the film or appears in flashbacks] [something they then do]. Throw in some symbolism [pick something and mansplain it], [some recurring visual] ([pithy one-word reaction], and some [another recurring motiff] ([another pithy one-word reaction]) and you’ve got [this is the only part of the review that will be entirely unique and actually informative].

[David Barry-esque closer. Or just three sardonic words in a row]. Number of stars out of 3.
Italics: Film Title, with list of actors. Directed by director, written by Writer. Xyz minutes. Rated N for things its rated that for. Theater distribution, opening date if still currently limited.

Review: The Loo Sanction

The Loo Sanction
The Loo Sanction by Trevanian
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I have just finished reading, literally seconds ago, The Loo Sanction.

I thought I had read this once before. But I didn’t remember any of it. Then again, my reading of it must have been nearly twenty years ago. Let’s call it a kind of pseudo-Alzheimer’s. And the joke is that it would be great to get Alzheimer’s and go reread all of one’s favorite books for the first time. I’m living the dream, here in my foggy head.

I read somewhere that The Eiger Sanction was supposed to be a spoof, but nobody got it. So this novel, it’s sequel, is supposed to up the ante.

In my review of The Eiger Sanction, I pointed out that Trevanian had used the word “insouciance.” Twice. However, in the Loo Sanction, he only uses the word once. So don’t know how we’re expected to feel the bash of the brick with which he’s allegedly hitting us on the head. Then again, he does go to great pains, when describing a nude woman’s woman parts, to use the word “ecu” repeatedly. I’m assuming it’s French.

No other word would do in this, a “thriller” that written as if the writer knows he should write literature but he’s deigning to entertain us for a few hundred pages instead. Not unlike the main character, who deigns to give lectures on art in between moments of daring-do, escapades, shenanigans. And in Britain no less. One wonder what escapades Travanian himself got up to when he wasn’t bearing the odious burden of using his amazing intellect to write pulp fiction.

In another twenty years I may read this book again. I may have for real Alzheimer’s. I may think I am reading my own biography. Not because I ever killed for the government, co-mingled with art thieves, or made vigorous love to acrobatic women. No, it will my recall of all the big words I like to throw around on account of how smart I am. You’ll see.

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Review: The Eiger Sanction

The Eiger Sanction
The Eiger Sanction by Trevanian
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Third time I’ve read The Eiger Sanction, first time reviewing. And both times I reread the novel, I’d forgotten the “twist” endings. Most likely because it’s a bit anti-climactic. Or because I’ve never written a review for it before, and I tend to forget things easily. I’d make a lousy spy.

Actually, Jonathan Hemlock isn’t a spy, he’s an assassin. An assassin who likes fine art, his solitude, hates people, his job. You know, every assassin trope you can think of. Or cliché, if you want to be mean. (The difference between a “trope” and a “cliché” is whether you like what you see or not). We’ll forgive Trevanian for this, though, since the book was written back in the early 70s.

You remember the 70s, don’t you? When racism and sexism where just part of the picture. When a man could sit in a chair gazing at a mountain, and a woman he’d never met before would simply bend over in front of him to signal she was eager to have sex. You know, the good old days.

Trope, cliché: more like male fantasy. But again, we let it go, for just as Herman Melville had to hide his essay about the whaling industry inside a revenge novel, so too does Trevanian wrap his love of mountain climbing in, well, a kind of revenge novel.

Yes, I compared Trevanian to Melville. And why not. The novel uses the word “insouciance” twice. It describes an un-climbed mountain as retaining its “hymen.” Trevanian himself once said, “I read Proust, but not much else written in the 20th century.” For crying out loud, he uses a one-name name, like Cher or Madonna. Or Voltaire. Or Ludacris.

Rodney Whitaker (Trevanian’s real name) claimed that The Eiger Sanction was a spoof. I’m not sure how a man who doesn’t read books written before 1901 knows enough about man-fantasy assassination-thriller-revenge novels to spoof then, but, benefit of the doubt and all that. If you want a decent little vacation novel, and have access to a dictionary, The Eiger Sanction is a goodread.

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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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Review: Blindness

Blindness by José Saramago
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Do yourself a favor and set aside a weekend to read Blindness. Or a long day, or get a lot of rest and buy some good coffee so that you can read Blindness from a dusk to a dawn. This book is written in a style that simply does not allow for many interruptions. You could try and treat the commas like periods and create your own paragraph breaks, but I think you’d be better off simply reading the novel straight through.

And when you’re done you’ll be exhausted. You’ll have been to hell and back. You’ll feel as if you’ve been brutalized, made filthy, and only at the end given an opportunity to be clean again. You’ll have witnessed a primordial evil without terror, and a deep humanity without pathos. You’ll know what it’s like to be an animal and will be satisfied that you’re more than one: for all your base urges and needs, all the pains you suffer, sweetness and light are their own reward.

Blindness is probably an extended metaphor, and the various, unnamed characters are probably archetypes for something—and that’s all well and good when the reading is done, and you’re ready for analysis. Memory, afterall, is something that serves one better if re-arranged, constructed, and made to fit one’s philosophies. But in the book itself, when you’re mired and coated with it, Saramago’s language and tone defy any other thinking than the experience itself. You will get lost in this book. You will be unable to talk about it, much, when you’re in the middle of it.

This novel is not for everyone, but then no novel is. Nor will Blindness suit you if you’re not ready for it. And yet, there is no way to test for suitability and readiness. One can never, truly, know how one will change when tragedy strikes. But one can prepare. Find that open weekend, that long day, that over-night time that you can set –aside. If Blindness does not suit you, read something else. But if does, prepare to be changed.

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Review: Vernon God Little

Vernon God Little
Vernon God Little by D.B.C. Pierre
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’ve just finished Vernon God Little, or should I say, polished off. Some people toss leftovers into any old bucket and throw them into the refrigerator; other people lovingly arrange half-eaten slabs of meatloaf and why-bother-smears of mashed potatoes on a plate and wrap it all with cellophane. I’m not sure which more deserves the term “polish-off” when I’me sitting there at the kitchen table having eaten the half-lava /half antarctic mess, and no thanks to my fickle microwave.

Here’s a novel that won the Booker prize in 2003. I’m going to make some assumptions: it was written by someone who not born or raised in Texas. It’s possible I’m wrong, but my understanding is that the Booker prize goes to British Commonwealth writers. Maybe D.B.C. Pierre was born in London and was moved to Central Texas at age three months, lived there until his writing years came upon him, and moved back to England to pen a tour de force. Maybe I’ll make meatloaf for dinner again tonight, so good where those leftovers.

I can tell you that the first third of the novel felt like a non-Texan trying to write what a Texan would sound like. A non-teenager trying to write what a teenager would sound like. I can think of no other novel that used the word “panties” this often. And the phrase “a learning.” This read like someone who was neither Texan nor teenaged, writing for people who are neither Texan nor teenaged, in a voice that they would expect to be Texan and teenaged.

Except that I’m neither Texan nor teenaged, and I was unconvinced. By the second third I was, at least, inured to the voice. Also caught up enough to follow the cavalcade of characters and distracted enough from my own confusion at the in medias res beginning. So I had enough momentum for the final; third, thank goodness.

Because that’s where Vernon God Little shifted from a stylistic barrage and a bit of fun to an outlandish fantasy version of the American Media Justice System ™. There’s willing suspension of disbelief when it comes to a style that cops a tone (Texan teenager written by non Texan teenager). But that suspension was stretched to the breaking point and snapped. I was no longer in the novel. I was outside, just reading it.

Which is why I had to polish it off. I stuffed my gullet. I’m not the only man in America who is the family garbage can, eating leftovers so they won’t go to waste, eating them so we can wash the dishes needed for something else. I needed my e-reader and brain back so I could read a different book.

Which I plan on doing after some Pepto and a few good belches.

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Review: Defending Jacob

Defending Jacob
Defending Jacob by William Landay
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I was in Maui. I was on vacation. I had already read three novels. They were, each of them, kind of heavy. Not hard to read, not over-long, just, you know. I wanted something a little more pulpy. So someone recommended Defending Jacob. I’ve read my fair-share of lawyer novels, and police procedurals, and family dramas. They’re not my first go-to, but the person who recommended this one said “I think about that book a lot.” Compelling! So I gave it a try.

And now that I’m done, lawyer novels and police procedurals and family dramas are still not going to be my first go-to. I’m not saying William Landay should have stuck to just the one theme, I’m just saying that none of those themes made this novel any better.

Let’s start with the lawyer theme, the court-room stuff. Its all a little too realistic. Verisimilitude is supposed to be a good thing, right? Yes, if you need to be authentic—but authentic does not equal interesting. Landay tries, by giving the judge an interesting character, for example, and providing background on some of the other courtroom personalities—but none of it is put to any use. It’s just a trial. We only get to see theatrics in the book’s “frame,” where the narrator himself has been called to testify before a grand jury for a different case altogether. But it’s not enough.

Then there’s the police procedural, which kind of melts into the family drama sections. It gets started when the main character, an ADA, assigns himself to a homicide- but then he’s taken off the case, and the procedural sort of fizzles.

And then there’s the family drama, which is mainly driven by two contradictory ideas. The main character says, several times, that he knows his son, knows him well, knows him well enough to know that he is innocent. He also points out that his son is a teenager, and teenagers are mysterious, withdrawn, and live in a world all their own, impenetrable and unknowable by adults.

So I found myself shrugging through the entire read. I’m fine with an unreliable narrator, but not an unreliable writer. And then there’s two convenient moments of deus-ex-machina to, first, tie things up, and then, throw a curve ball so that the writer can tie things up again. In a slapdash, overly dramatic, sensationalistic (and let’s face it predictable) manner. The novel went from interesting to pedestrian to boring to cheesy.

I have no idea why the person who recommended this to me “thinks about it a lot.” I’ll have to ask.

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Review: The God of Small Things

The God of Small Things
The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a terrible novel. It’s very well written and compelling and immersive. And just awful. It won the Booker Prize in 1997 and deserved it. It’s Arundhati Roy’s only novel to date and we can only hope she’ll write more exquisite prose like this. And it’s a horrible book.

I don’t mean it’s bad. I mean I felt miserable the entire time I was reading it. Vivid, lurid descriptions of a small village in southwestern India, the people who live there, the sharp lines drawn between the classes, young and old, men and women. I was dazzled by the colors. I could almost smell the rot. I could feel the filth dripping from every branch, from every grimy soul.

There are no good people in this book. Ostensibly, the main characters are good. And their best friend. But they’re not even real people, just foils for cruel injustice. To call the caste system inhumane, to call adults abusive, to call the men sexist, is all so much understatement. This is a squalid, depressing, odious, nauseating little book.

I suppose there are a few scenes of beauty and grace, but they’re too meager to make up for everything else. Too last-minute, too seemingly-tossed in. They do not balance with otherwise overwhelming sense of despair that the rest of the book offers.

By all means, go ahead and read The God of Small Things. Arundhati Roy has a way with words that is unique, fascinating, brilliant. I wish she would write more. As much as this novel made me feel bad, I still want to read other books by her. I think that’s the only good thing I can say about this read.

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