Monthly Archives: January 2012

“The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time”: a book review

This novel will be eight years old this year and is still magnificent. I’m only sorry it took me so long to get around to it. Why did no one tell me? This timeless book is an experience; a little peek into the life of someone very different and yet very familiar. “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” is a book that made me say “wow”, and fully agree with it quite regular praise of it being “amazing” and “moving.” This novel is both of these things, and is a superb achievement by author Mark Haddon. 

If it helps to gain perspective of how much this book was enjoyed, I have to use a phrase that I’ve always hated: “I couldn’t put it down.” The reason I dislike this so much is that it seems every customer/reader book review has at least a few people saying this, so it’s never a great gauge of true quality. However, for someone like me, who always takes at least a week to read, I finished this in under 48-hours—something I never do. Really. Never. Because even if a reader loves a book, our lives are filled with distractions: cell phones, work, movies, lunch hour, cleaning, and the inevitable bathroom breaks. But whenever I had an ounce of free time, I was cracking open this book, and in my first sitting I destroyed the first half of Haddon’s novel. It flows so well! Again, the interest really has to be there for someone like me to really commit time in this way to a book, and I read often, so you can imagine how severely I was hooked.

By page 16, once I understood the back-and-forth rhythm of the chapter pattern (one of plot, one of Christopher’s thoughts—repeat), I knew that this was going to be excellent. The voice is brilliant and it’s repetition of certain words (mainly “and”) never really get in the way of the effective, flowing prose. Many, many sentences and paragraphs begin with “And”, but that’s of course just the narrator. Whenever someone talks with the main character Christopher—who has a learning/emotional disorder—their speech patterns and cadences contrast to a much purposed effect. It augments the difference between us and, essentially, people like Christopher. “Normal” humans do a lot of weird things, use strange colloquialisms, and our turns-of-phrases are idiotic or, at best, complicated. These thoughts are highlighted through the narrator’s thoughts.

The world almost seems easier to deal with and simpler through Christopher’s eyes, which are not naïve or stupid eyes, but rather “stripped-down, factual, say what you mean, truth vs. lie” eyes. Here’s the truth and here is why. Here is why religion is silly. Here’s why the world is how it is. Using sound logic and science Christopher simplifies our complicated existence into moments of profundity, clarity, meditation, and common sense. 

A note about broken homes and readers with divorced parents: Wow, people can relate to this in America. In a country where around 60% of marriages end in divorce, the brief but dark moments in the novel of realistic vulgarity and arguing can hit home. Coming from a divorced home myself and knowing friends with the same situations, I imagine that one of three reactions were held by readers: (1) “Man, at least my parent’s divorce wasn’t that bad”; (2) “Man, my parents fought/fight just like this”; (3) “This is all they got? My parents were way more violent than this child’s play.”

This is easily one of the tightest and most captivating books I’ve read in a while; blending perfectly, yes, perfectly, a balance of dialogue, plot, details vs. ambiguity, action, and tangential information which adds depth, not just “fat” to reach a word/page count. While talking about page count, it’s also worth noting that Mark Haddon’s novel is an example of how a book that is barely over 220 pages can feel very complete and kick ass. I shouldn’t have to tell anybody a book is never judged by the quantity of its pages and good things can come in small books.

One of things often over-looked in books I read last year was the construction of deeply satisfying endings by the authors. Not just ones that made sense regarding the loose ends being tied up within the plot, but truly satisfying endings emotionally, thematically, and realistically. “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” has this big-time. Those last two chapters, mainly the last long one, is very well don, right down to the last paragraph and last sentence.

How I normally grade films and books is on a 5 star scale.

1= Extremely poor. How was this released/published?

2=Below average. Good elements here, but needs work. Skip it.

3= Average. What I expected.

4=Above average. Something worth going out of your way to experience.

5=This should win awards. Must read before you die. Possibly own.

A 5/5 doesn’t mean a perfect piece, and it doesn’t mean it’s on my personal top ten list. What it really means is that there were no glaring flaws, the story was satisfying and took me on a journey, I enjoyed it nearly cover to cover, it’s likely to sell millions, the characters had depth, and it should probably be nominated for something. “The Curious Incident” is a 5/5. The book was joint winner of the 2004 Boeke Prize, won the 2003 Whitbread Book of the Year award and sold more than two million copies.

I would give it a 4.5/5 if it had a weak ending or hadn’t won any awards, but the truth is that Mark Haddon took a big fictional leap with creating this story, and of all the books I’ve read, this book stands alone and is truly original.

By the way, Steve Kloves, screenwriter of many of the Harry Potter films, is currently working on a screen adaptation. Can’t wait.

Final Score: 5/5

MH

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“Their Eyes Were Watching God” by Zora Neale Hurston: a book review

If you put Mark Twain, Virginia Woolfe, and the American South of the 1930s in a blender with too much dialogue, you get the idea of the female-driven, romantic folktale that is “Their Eyes Are Watching God” by Zora Neale Hurston.

While a good book, it is generally over-rated by readers and critics alike; constantly showered with praise everywhere I looked online (often near-perfect or perfect scores, put up there with Fitzgerald and Langston Hughes. Frankly, there’s no comparison). The dialogue can be challenging for your average reader because it is written with full African-American slang, and boy, there’s a lot of it (!), but you’ll catch on quick… or you’ll drop it fast.

Now the good. What it has going for it: it’s a short little novel (193 pages, Harper Perennial P.S. Edition). It’s a quick read, parts feel like a fable, and the emotions feel real. It’s understated in some places, and if you’re reading too fast, you’ll miss some metaphors and some “under the surface” subtext. It’s satisfying to experience with Janie Crawford overcoming personal doubt, seeking real happiness, and facing sorrow and fear. Zora Hurston’s truest strength is that she has made this novel about people and their intimate connections, NOT just “black” people and “black” people’s connection. Any race can read this and find the love and humanity in it. It focuses minimally on the white/black dynamic. Preferring the universal issues, it only barely touches on the white’s influence at the time. In fact: it shows how some black people put themselves down, which was refreshing for the genre of literature which tackles the subject.

There are beautiful things in here, and my favorite part was the second husband who becomes the mayor of an all black town. That could have been the entire book, in my opinion. There was a lot of potential there to form a full novel and have it end similarly, where Janie, of course, returns to where  she came from with a deeper understanding of marriage, men, and what she wants from love.

Spoiler warning!

The ending was rushed (Chapters 18-20) and I’m not sure why a dog was on a cow’s back during a hurricane. Oh, and had rabies, and is ultimately responsible for taking away Janie happiness. Weird, right? I thought so too.

End of Spoiler Warning!

I also feel this story did not have to be framed as a flashback, where this entire story is being told to one of Janie’s friends. The beginning of the book and the end of the book are scenes of Janie telling Pheoby this long story. “That’s all folks” is kind of like what it felt like to me. Yes, it would make sense for a film, but to frame your novel as a story being told to someone after the fact is a risky thing if it doesn’t carry enough PURPOSE. This requires some artful choices of when to pop in and out of the story and asking “what the ultimate necessity is for having this story being told to someone as a fireside tale?” What was the point here? Did it add to anything? In the end, I just didn’t feel that necessity here. It felt like a hokey framing device you’d get from the Hallmark version of this movie.

While a sold read, a 3.5 out of 5 is all I can give it. I feel it was trapped between novella and a fully realized novel. If you want something to really make you think about white whites, black blacks, and the fair-skinned black people who could be either, one of the most controversial, thought-provoking, and morally questionable books I can recommend is Nella Larsen’s underappreciated “Passing” (4/5). There is an ambiguity here that will make you beg other to read it so you have someone to talk to and can compare reactions. People who read “Their Eyes Were Watching God” will have little to discuss and much to simply agree upon, and that’s nice, but a little boring to me.

Final verdict: 3.5/5

MH

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“Warrior”: a film review and genre analysis

You will cry and cheer and cry again watching “Warrior” directed by Gavin O’Connor. Why it was not advertised more when it was released in 2011, and why it wasn’t up for more awards, I will never know. This film, as it says on the DVD box cover, is in fact “as powerful and unforgettable as Rocky”. If 2008 got the incredible “The Wrestler” by Darren Aronofsky (with Mickey Rorke) and if 2010 got the emotional “The Fighter” by David O. Russell (with Walhberg and Bale), then 2011 stands proud as completing the trifecta of must-see fighting movies; truly three of the best since Rocky.

What is refreshing about Warrior is that it is not boxing or kung-fu, but UFC fighting—mixed martial arts. Sponsored by TAPOUT, it is one of the better movies ever distributed by the inconsistent Lionsgate Studios; distributing and funding average or worse horror/thrillers directed and staring “nobodys”; or straight to DVD garbage. Funny thing is: Lionsgate also strangely releases a golden piece of art every now and then (i.e. Brothers, The Hunger Games, Hotel Rwanda). Somebody in their head office works miracles, the rest distribute trash. The must flip a coin for their next project.

Back to Warrior: Why these fighting-drama pictures all resurfaced at the same time doesn’t matter, and it could have had something to do with Rocky Balboa’s release in 2006. Alas, maybe it’s just that the UFC, boxing in general, and the WWE have simply become American—if not global—staples for aggressive men. It’s primal.

But these movies are more than that. They show the heart behind it all. The motivation. The heart.

Where action movies of the 1980s and 1990s in general came with a large bucket of popcorn, tons of violence and laughable situations (often with Van Damme or Seagul), they lacked strong plots and characters overall. They were two dimensional at best. Something to watch when bored for a cheap thrill. The movies listed above all fill that missing link to appeal to a wider audience and make us understand that behind these fighters are relationships—both good and bad—with families, fathers, mothers, wives, and brothers. While they are for the most part male driven stories and male dominated films, having that heart pumping deep in the films makes them accessible to women now, more so than before. And they are believable. The most important part.

No matter your sex, you see now see with important films like Cinderella Man, The Wrestler, and Warrior these that sometimes fighting comes with something more than just trying to be the best. It comes with something more than just trying to impress the girl, or beat the bad guy, or win all that dirty, beautiful prize money. These tales show us that they are people, just like us, who happen to fight. Just like Rocky or The Fighter.

Tom Hardy, Joel Edgerton, and Nick Nolte play sad, powerful, and fully realized characters. They make this long film (2 hrs. 20 mins.) easy to sit through. I would go watch any of their next projects in a heartbeat.

A word about the character Tommy, however, played by Tom Hardy (Inception, Wuthering Heights, The Dark Knight Rises). I’ve never felt so bad for an old man (Nick Nolte) in my life. For the entire film, Tom Hardy’s character stonewalls his father Paddy’s advances to patch things up, and you really find it hard to cheer for Tommy. The bias of the story, without question puts you Brendan’s corner (Edgerton). Brendan has a wife, kids, his life is pretty together; he has the support of his classroom where he teaches as a physics professor, and he forgave both Tommy and their father, Paddy, to both of their faces early on in the film. Tommy has none of these and did none of these. Late in the film do we discover Tommy deserted his platoon in Iraq, and by accident came across troops in trouble and got caught on video being a hero and saving lives. Irony. Even with this “save your country” sentiment, and even though he promised to send his prize money to one of the fallen “brothers” he lost from his unit, it’s still near impossible to actually want to see Tommy come out of this thing as the victor.

If the point of this film was to make it difficult for the audience to feel a dilemma between which brother to cheer for—it failed.

The father character, Paddy, picked the wrong son to train. He’s 1000 days sober, and Tommy pushes him over the edge one night, and he starts drinking again. Damn you, Tom Hardy. Paddy should have picked Joel Edgerton’s character, Brendan, because Tommy makes it abundantly clear that he wants nothing to do with his father except as a trainer and treats him like shit. While all the other characters grow in the film, Tommy never does until the end when he has a big breakthrough. We aren’t given his “story” until the third act. Touching as it was, the screenwriter could have allowed Tommy to cave in a little bit somewhere in the middle and realize he was being unreasonable. In this way, the audience may have felt that dilemma mentioned earlier and care about the brother’s equally.

This is a story about brothers and family, yes; but it’s really Brendan’s story. He’s fighting to save his house in the name of his wife and kids. Tommy is a rough son-of-a-bitch, and we are shown more scenes with him being a bastard than scenes giving us reasons to cheer for him.

Then again, people are like this. Some shells are near impossible to crack. Not every person is like a character in a fictitious film that slowly blossoms and grows, and you could easily say that the screenwriter and director did great justice by showing a real character with years of abandonment and trust issues. But the truth is that’s usually not always the most interesting film.

Character issues aside, the plot, direction, and fight scenes alone make “Warrior” one of the best action-fighter dramas of the past 35 years.

Grade: 8/10

My favorite of the genre:

  1.  Rocky (9/10)
  2.  The Fighter (9/10)
  3.  The Wrestler (8.5/10)
  4.  Warrior (8/10)
  5.  Raging Bull (8/10)
  6.  Cinderella Man (8/10)
  7. Million Dollar Baby (7/10)

So sue me for Raging Bull only being number five. You damn film elitists. Have an opinion of your own.

MH

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Lullaby by Chuck Palahniuk: A Review

To Mr. Palahniuk: I can guess you’re every story. A darkly romantic, apocalyptic warning against cultural materialism. Okay, Chuck. We get it. Stop shoving it down our throats like we’re whores with your every book. And don’t be mad at me. I loved you once, and if you try—maybe, maybe—you can win me back and many other of your old readers, but that’s a damned tall order. The thimble full of respect I have for you is a sieve. The truth is, now that I am in my mid-twenties and have read close to 150 other books not by you, I realize your stuff is one-note, and has often been done before and deeper and better. Now your work seems preachy to me, and I hate author’s putting entire chapters in “italics” for very loose reasons. You do this in “Lullaby.” Some chapters, without any dialogue or setting, we’re just in character’s head, never specified, and talk at about philosophies. I realize now we’re just in your head. Like a sixteen year old who just discovered pot and whose favorite movie is still motherfucking “Donnie Darko”. Grow up. Short sentences. Same thing. Every book. Not original or fresh anymore. Stop. Please.

And stop starting new lines every couple sentences and leaving it solo, like this.

When you put a single sentence on its own, lingering with its own indent, multiple times on a page, well, you lose its dramatic impact. Not everything can be that important. Not every little sharp, witty thing is that sharp and witty.

The Review: Palahniuk wrote this book in 21 days, and learning that was kind of a revelation for me. It did seem like he wrote it in 21 days, read it over once and inserted a few chapters in the earlier section to account for some ideas he had along the way, then called it good and cashed his check.

Disclaimer—to be fully honest, I only read most of this. Take that however you will, but do not discount my review for it. I did read the first and last 75 pages, but the middle 120 pages of this book?—I almost killed myself. And when I was done I felt kind of dirty, like I’d just wasted five hours watching wrestling on TV. You’re like: “Okay, so that just happened, but so what? I could have done something else but I didn’t.”

If your whole point is to waste five hours, I guess this will do the trick, but there have to be better options out there. Next time I want to waste my time, I’ll do it with an author who is didn’t write the same novel in four slightly different ways. In his defense, and this is all I will give him, this was his fourth book and a departure from his more “grounded” works that could actually occur in the real world. He took a creative gamble and took this one deeper into fantasy, and that must be appreciated and respected. While that is all “fine and good”, it’s a shame the book was not fine or good. It was average at best. At Best.

Palahniuk’s premise is certainly intriguing (albeit difficult to swallow at times), but he stumbles with the execution. The culling song presents the kernel of an interesting idea, but the book feels padded, and I mean padded!, even at just over 250 pages with plenty of blank ones purposely scattered throughout. (Whenever a page started on an even page, he left that page blank and started the new chapter on the odd page more than half way down the page. Probably publishers fault to make a short novel feel more substantial.)

Simply put, this is an idea that would have worked much better as a short story. You can tell this tale in 30 pages like a Grimm Fairy Tale without any dialogue, or even a 120 page novella. Let me know if you want me to rewrite this for you, Chuck.

Palahniuk is clumsy in communicating his major themes, taking a heavy-handed approach that simply involves bludgeoning the reader into submission through sheer repetition. And repetition. And repetition. Have I made it clear he repeats a lot of his ideas? So, Palahniuk is becoming repetitive as a writer. He has an incredibly unique voice, but it hasn’t expanded much since “Fight Club” and “Survivor”. Hell, even “Invisible Monster” was great when I first read it, but now that I’ve read five of his other books over the past decade, I’m terrified to re-read “Invisible Monster” because I have grown as a reader and may find it to be total garbage. While reading “Lullaby“, I was suddenly struck by an observation — all of the characters sound exactly alike. And I mean in this novel and all of his other novels. The themes of nihilism, media saturation, and salvation-through-destruction are used and re-used, over and over. I understand that authors have common themes that they revisit, but after a while, it begins to feel more like a rut than a style. Palahniuk needs to show more growth in this area quickly or he runs the risk of being seen as a one-trick pony. And it’s sad, because I really liked that pony at first. We all did. But I grew up, and now I want a horse.

Any rumination in his head got repeated every couple chapters, just in case you’re reading at a speed of one page a day and need reminding. Whole chapters feel like untouched drafts. Who is this guy’s editor? The average chapter length is between 3-6 pages, and there are 44. That’s 44 chapters in a 250 page book with frequent blank pages. Yikes.

Overall, the book is interesting, but it never rises above the level of just “OK”. You could argue that it’s just fiction and for Palahniuk to make a point, even a really obvious one, perhaps he feels he must take the ends of his stories somewhere strange and foreign and impossible and we are supposed to accept it like a fable or an allegory. We’re supposed to “just get it.”

Without being too pessimistic, I can say the best days are behind him and I won’t be reading any more of his books. Especially his last one, “Damned” — I heard it was shit-ball city. I’ve read most of his work, so I know what’s up; including Invisible Monsters, Choke, Haunted, Survivor, Diary, Fight Club, Rant (really shitty), Snuff, and now Lullaby. I won’t even touch his more recent “Tell-All”—nor “Pygmy”—based on horror stories from friends and less than favorable reviews from, well, everyone (amateur and professional reviews, digitally and printed, and Amazon reviews). The synopses are cringe-worthy.

I think I’m nauseous. A little Palahniuk goes a long way. If you’ve never read Palahniuk before, I’d recommend reading “Survivor” (4/5) and then “Choke” (3.5/5) and maybe “Fight Club” which I blasphamously give (3.5/5) whose Fincher film from 1999 is far superior. Which, bytheway, how that incredible screewriter turned that book into such a coherent movie I will never know. I read it after I saw the film and couldn’t believe how scatterbrained it was.

Skip “Lullaby”, then, please, do what I did not and quit while you’re ahead.

Score “Lullaby”: 2/5

Avg. Score of most Chuck Palahniuk novels: 3/5

For more: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chuck_Palahniuk#Criticism   and  http://www.infinityplus.co.uk/fantasticfiction/lullaby.htm

p.s. the background of this story, as in what was occuring in Chuck’s real life at the time, is for more interesting and sad than the book; but knowing that his father died does explain why Chuck is Chuck and writes how he does. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lullaby_(novel)

 

MH

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The Descendants: a Novel Review

The Descendants is wonderfully touching, simple, but also complex in a very human way. Themes explored include love, revenge, trust, people’s impressions of others, and of course family; specifically, how we allow our family blood-line to affect our present day life and choices (those before us, those to come after us).

I’ve been meaning to see the movie with George Clooney that has just hit theaters (Holiday 2011), but when I heard it was a book, and I knew vaguely what it was about, I realized that I should read the book first. I made this decision for very specific reasons. Not all movies would I hold off from seeing just because I discovered they were first novels. I decided to read The Descendants before the movie because, frankly, it reminded me of three other movies about life, love, death, and family, which I watched only but never read. These books were Water For Elephants, The Help, and Up In the Air. Regarding all three of these movies: they are nomination worthy if nothing else, and two of the three books my wife had read and said they were even better. She’s an English teacher so her word is pretty solid. Plus, (and, not to brag) I’ve made her into something of a film buff. Without really forcing her, she’s broadened and strengthened her tastes and understands what to look for and how good story lines should grow and flow.

Even if I read …Elephants, The Help, and Up In the Air, they will not hit me the same way because I am not a “virgin” to their stories. I will have actors and actresses faces in my head; I will constantly compare the versions. What’s been cut out, added, and changed. So, it was with this mindset I decided if I get wind of a particularly enticing tale via movie trailer preview, or if I hear of a movie in the works with a lot of buzz about it being based on a book, I’m reading it first from now on.

Full discolsure: I did have Clooney’s face in my head for the whole book, but that’s the extent of what had been “ruined” for me, if you want to call it that. The book is dry, sad, and real. One of the most B.S.-proof books I’ve read in a while. And I can’t freakin’ believe it is the author’s first novel (K. H. Hemmings), a Hawaiian native. She rocks. Period. This book is visual, sexy, smart, and understated in a beautiful way. Characters actions carry real weight, and while she could dive into any of their heads at any time, which is the easy way out, she mastfully and carefully doles out moments she wants us in Matt King’s head (the main chracter and father of the two daughters). Speaking of them, if you ever saw and enjoyed Little Miss Sunshine or Forgetting Sarah Marshall, parts of this book, while mostly serious, will guarenteed have you laughing out loud. There are some shocking “wow” moments as well, and this is a read for 15-year-olds, as much as 35-year-olds, as much as 70-year-olds. The ten- and eighteen-year olds are charming and three dimensional, and the characters actually change, though some a bit more than others. It’s great to watch Matt King — a father who has never really been there to raise his two daughter — being force to do so now that his wife is in a coma. The twist is that she had a secret lover, and Matt now feels he has to take his kids on a trip through friends, islands, old haunts, and relatives to find out what to do now, including a face to face talk with his wife’s lover — once he find him, of course. Great stuff.

It’s a book that young male adults should not brush off as female-oriented, because it is really not. It’s not about being a particular sex and reading this. It’s about being a person and empathizing. Although this is a drama story at heart, 9/10 people are going to laugh, choke up, and recommend this book to others (like I did with the gem of a film Stupid Crazy Love which got nowhere near the praise it deserved when it came out). I bet The Descendants as a film will also have 9/10 people raving, and I encourage you lazy people who don’t want to read the book or hate reading to really try to see the film. I heard great justice was done by the director who offered great fidelity up to the source material.

One of the top ten books I’ve read in twelve months (Jan 2011 – Jan 2012).

If you see this book in a book store, read the first few pages which are littered with snippets of praise from a dozen magazines and newspapers and know that every one of them is 100% true.

4.5/5

MH

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