New York, NY, United States
Classic Sixties Caper
I saw The Hot Rock when it first came out as a movie in 1972, when I was 15. My friends and I loved it, quoted it endlessly. It has since passed out of our collective cinematic memory, did so almost instantly in fact, in part due to Robert Redford's unhappiness with it (he kept it from being released on video for a long time). But when I saw it come up in a recent BOGO sale -- I didn't even know it was originally a book -- I thought I'd give it a try.
So it didn't keep me on the edge of my seat, since I knew how it was going to go, but I don't think it was written that way -- it's a comic caper in the 60s tradition with the twist being that the gang has to commit a series of heists to get their target -- the hot rock of the title. Each heist is pulled off perfectly, except that they don't get the emerald, and therefore have to go after it again.
And in addition to the plot, the characters are well drawn -- stereotypical petty thieves to begin with, but each with a personality quirk that broadens their character, often to comedic effect. Bottom line, it was a quick fun read (listen) that for me harked back to a long forgotten pop culture touchstone from my past.
Voices. Although I don't think he does them all that well. The best narrators find a voice or a series of voices that beat out what you could come up with in your imagination -- these voices are stereotypes, exactly what you would imagine.
The Perfect Heist... Gone Wrong... Again and Again and Again
Amazing that 45 years later, Jerzy Kosinski's political fable remains not only relevant, but magnified by contemporary American politics. In 1970, Kosinski imagined Chance, the newly homeless gardener, as just one slow-witted figure who is given the steering wheel to the political bus by people who should know better. Today, we have the clown car of candidates, filled to overflowing, growing more crowded each day, taken far too seriously by people who should know better.
Being There posits the notion that politics is all about just, well, being there -- years before Woody Allen coined the phrase "80% of life is just showing up" in Annie Hall (although some still debate whether Kosinski actually wrote any of this stuff himself). Thus does Chance, despite his mental handicaps, rise to become a revered political pundit and even presidential candidate within a matter of days, his truisms about gardening and TV watching mistaken for profound metaphors about the political and economic climate (pun intended).
The 1979 movie version is wonderful, one of my all-time favorites, Peter Sellers pitch-perfect as Chance ("I like to watch"), as is the entire supporting cast, and with Basketball Jones making a memorable video cameo. The original novella is not quite as fully realized, the difference being a more complete depiction of the impact of TV upon a simple anonymous character like Chance, via actual TV clips like Basketball Jones (easier for a visual medium like film to pull off).
But it is still a great, quick read. I read it way back when, and welcomed this opportunity to listen to Dustin Hoffman narrate it in audio format. Hoffman's reading is a tad slow and gruff, but it is still a treat.
Art imitates life and life imitates art in Nick Hornby's latest novel -- back and forth until using that old saw is no longer apt. Indeed, Hornby's characters, starting with Lucille Ball wannabe Sophie Straw (nee Barbara), start out crafting their mid-60s BBC sitcom based on their own life experience, and then, when it succeeds, mold the series to the needs of their real life, including the impact of their newfound celebrity.
To take it one step further -- and to state the main reason while I liked this book a lot, despite its decidedly mixed reviews -- the deeper theme is about the creative process, how one's own experience informs that process and how one's own life has to alter in order to maintain creativity over the long haul. Hornby does an excellent job exploring the nuances of creativity while drawing a team of engaging characters and mildly humorous episodes.
Funny Girl will not make fans forget High Fidelity or About a Boy, or even one of my personal favorites, Juliet Naked. But it is solidly in there with the remainder of Hornby's fiction (except for the woebegotten Slam). It is worth the price of admission just for the chapter about the stuffy talk show Pipe Smoke where Sophie's producer Dennis destroys his joyless old school counterpart on the subject of what constitutes appropriate TV material.
If I have one bone to pick, it is the relegation of the 1960s to a bit part, despite its indelible influence as a revolutionary cultural era that set the stage for the show within the book to break new ground. Yes, there is occasional reference to the Beatles, Stones and Yardbirds, and the even more groundbreaking sitcom Till Death Us Do Part (the model for the US hit All in the Family). But it would have been nice to have a better sense of what was going on at the time. In fact, it is often not even clear that the story is set during the heart of the 60s.
Nice job by Emma Fielding reading the book, especially reading Sophie's lines. A little too breathy on occasion, but otherwise spot on.
Cotton Malone and Co. have to solve a puzzle that jillionaire Andrew Mellon left behind for FDR back in the 1930s. And they have to stop the North Koreans and Chinese, and a rogue American conspiracy theorist, from solving it first in order to protect secrets that could bring the U.S. economy crashing down. In other words, classic Steve Berry, nicely rebounding from the disappointment of his previous effort.
Making this audiobook special for longtime Berry fans like me is a version that features post-chapter commentary by the author. Berry always includes a postscript to his books detailing what is historically accurate, what may be speculation by various entities (some scholarly, some not), and what are his own fictional creations. I often refer to his afterword as I read in order to know these distinctions as I go along. Here, we get some of that information at the end of each chapter, plus the full afterword at the end. Great stuff.
My one problem with this book, for which I deduct a star, is some weakness and distortion in the main element of the story. I don't believe the prime secret rises to the level of existential threat to our economy. We have never provided reparations for slavery or genocide, and more recently have not held anyone accountable for the fraud used to launch a war that killed thousands of Americans, hundreds of thousands overall, or held anyone accountable for crashing our economy, so I don't think we'd allow some arcane legal argument undo a century of reality.
I also find the author remiss in failing to fully explain the situation with the real-life book that is the main source material for this conspiracy theory. He notes that courts have ruled it to be without sufficient evidence to make a real case. In fact, it has been deemed to be lacking in any proof whatsoever, and indeed has been ruled to be a fraud perpetrated by its author in order to make money. Knowing that, as I did before starting this book, further diminishes the power of the McGuffin that drives The Patriot Threat.
On the other hand, there are other redeeming qualities to the book, including the second secret pointed to by the puzzle, and even more so the look inside North Korea and its prison camps. Hana, one of the main characters, and one of two windows into North Korea, is a brilliantly realized character, more compelling (in this particular volume) than Cotton Malone himself. Overall, despite the weakness of the main secret and the plodding narration of Scott Brick, The Patriot Threat is a treat, especially for Berry's fans.
If, like me, you enjoy non-fiction that attempts to explain science, history, economics, or what have you to readers who are not fully educated in those fields, and particularly enjoy them in audio format, then you really can't go wrong with What If, the longtime New York Times best seller. The premise is immediately captivating, as expressed in the subtitle:serious scientific answers to absurd hypothetical questions. Like, what would happen if you drained the oceans, or if the sun was suddenly extinguished?
That the answers are not as completely serious as the subtitle suggests is actually a good thing, especially with the incomparable Wil Wheaton reading the droll explanations, leading us to their inevitable punch lines. For example, the answer about the sun is all about the positives that might result in the absence of sunlight, until the punchline -- we couldn't realize those benefits because we would all freeze to death.
Still, the good thing about answering absurd questions in this way is arriving at backhanded explanations of serious scientific subjects, such as the ways the sun can be a detriment, despite being so essential to life. Unfortunately, not every topic is as informative as this best of examples. To be honest, some of the answers, scientifically rigorous though they may be, are actually as silly as the original questions, and do not really impart any useful knowledge.
In the final analysis, I find What If to be consistently entertaining, but not consistently edifying -- I certainly like to be entertained by these kinds of books, but not at the expense of learning something new.
A pessimist might say, well that's 26 and a half hours of my life I'll never get back. An optimist might respond, well at least it saves us from having to listen to the other 63 and a half hours of this series. Seriously: you've been warned.
Neil Young once introduced his song, Don't Let It Bring You Down, by saying, here's a song guaranteed to bring you right down -- it starts off slowly and then peters out altogether. If only that were true of Doomsday Book, which starts of slowly, 18 hours worth of slow, and then turns downright awful for the final eight hours. Unless you've been hankering for graphic descriptions of death by plague (eight hours worth!), consider yourself warned.
At the 18 hour mark, there was a moment where I thought this might all be worth it. I could see exactly how Willis could bring together her story of time travel from the mid-21st century to the 14th century, with its bookend epidemics and attempts to bring the time traveller back from the deep dark past. But instead of tying together the scant plot strands, she gives us eight hours of the plague.
I listened to Willis's Bellwether and absolutely loved it. A neat, satisfying six and a half hour bundle of genius. I thought Doomsday Book might be Bellwether times four, the entire Oxford series Bellwether times fourteen. If only Willis had distilled this down to a manageable 8-12 hours, maybe it would have lived up to its hype and awards (by cutting out the endless repetition, for example, or cutting down the graphic description of the plague -- half an hour of plague would have sufficed).
This is beyond disappointment. This was simply awful -- 18 hours of boring followed by eight hours of awful. Thanks to Jenny Sterlin for narration that at least makes the listening easy on the ears. Too bad the writing was not at the same level.
A blind teemager has her vision restored, a monkey learns to paint portraits, the Chinese president does some nefarious megalomaniacal Chinese president stuff, and the internet comes to life in time to send the formerly blind girl birthday wishes in Robert Sawyer's Wake, the first installment in his WWW trilogy.
What Sawyer does best here, as he does in his other books, is to choose a theme (or two), research it pretty well, and present a technically satisfying fictional portrait of that theme (or two). In WWW, the main theme is consciousness -- how it may have developed in humans during earlier stages of evolution, how it could morph within an intelligent modern day human when her primary senses are altered, how it might develop in non-human entities such as lower primates and (artificially) in machines.
Where Sawyer stumbles is in plot and character development. The operative weaknesses are a) it all unfolds too slowly, no doubt a function of originally being published in serialized form, as well as being stretched out into a trilogy, and b) it is all too familiar, too stock, despite taking so much extra time to work it all out. The confluence of those two factors is that there is too much time spent explaining the technicalities behind the plot and themes (although, as I said previously, those technicalities become the saving grace).
I realize that seems contradictory -- what I like best about the book is, so I claim, fluff that detracts from plot and character development. To get five stars and a rave review from me, Sawyer would have had to come up with a better story and more complex characters while retaining the great background material. Perhaps that happens later in the trilogy. I'm not sure yet whether I will take the time to find that out for myself.
Like many readers, I only ever read Philip Pullman's Dark Materials series, starting with The Golden Compass. Clockwork provided an opportunity to sample another of his works, also a children's book, like most of his books. Now, I'm not sure if I want to try that again -- this just did not work for me.
I never think it's a good idea for a writer to explain his central metaphor, even to children who may otherwise not understand it. But to explain how clocks worked in a pre-electronic age, then tell us that stories can work the same way, then having one character write a story within the story called Clockwork, having another character make clockworks, and having a third who has clockwork instead of a heart, well, it's all just too much, and doesn't make all that much sense. I'm not sure how children can be expected to understand this when it is too convoluted for this adult, even with all the preamble about clockwork and metaphor.
The print edition is heavily illustrated, but I don't think the absence of illustration makes any difference. I could see how it might enhance the printed word, but the spoken word should hold water on its own. I don't see how pictures would make this tale any less nonsensical.
Dave Van Ronk told co-author Elijah Wald that he did not want to write an autobiography. He wanted to capture the spirit of Greenwich Village during the 60s folk revival (the "folk scare" as he fondly dubbed it). He wanted to capture it as he saw it, having been a central figure for its duration, longer than anyone else, from its earliest sparks to his untimely death many decades later in 2002. To his credit, Van Ronk succeeded in his express intention and wrote a compelling musical and personal memoir in the process.
Van Ronk always seemed miss out on everything. He was too late for the trad jazz revival, his first musical love. He was too early to find fame and fortune in the folk revival that took off in the wake of Peter, Paul and Mary (he turned down an offer to complete the trio, which then went to Paul Stookey) and Bob Dylan, who recorded Dave's version of House of the Rising Sun before Dave had a chance to do so himself. And by his own preference, he stayed clear of rock'n'roll and the singer-songwriter wave started by contemporaries like Dylan, Phil Ochs and Tom Paxton.
But Van Ronk was not only there when a seminal music scene developed and blossomed, he was a pivotal figure in its development, even if he never became a star himself. These days, Dave's birthplace, Brooklyn, is home to a nascent folk scene (that Dave himself would not categorize as folk but as singer-songwriter), so there is renewed interest in the Village folk revival of the late 50s and 60s. Dave's own memoir of that era covers every aspect of that scene in an entertaining and opinionated first person narrative, the highlights of which are his chapters on Reverend Gary Davis, Dylan, and the complicated taxonomy of Village social, political and musical movements of the era.
I admit that I cannot be an objective reviewer. Not that I was a big Van Ronk fan in the day -- I did see him (and enjoy him) at the Bitter End in the 80s and I did have one or two of his records (though I didn't listen to them often, not at all in the past 25 years). But he is not one of my major influences. We play the same style, share many of the same influences (Rev. Davis, Jelly Roll Morton), and I too was a busker in Washington Square (albeit twenty years later, being that much younger than him). But I too have lived my entire adult life in and around the Village and have always aspired toward the same musical ends, so to me, this book is manna from heaven.
Still, I think anyone with an interest in the music and the era will enjoy it as well. Certainly more so than the recent movie Inside Llewyn Davis, based on this book but taking so many liberties with the character of Van Ronk and the Village music scene that figures from that era, including Van Ronk's first wife, have taken issue with it. But the music is spot on, which is probably the most important thing (although the primary song used in the movie, Hang Me, is never once mentioned in the book.
This is the third book by Max Barry that I've read (the prior two in print), and as a former participant in the corporate work force as both employee and executive, I have enjoyed his biting satires of that world. Jennifer Government imagines a world in which corporations operate with minimal governmental regulation and go so far as killing people as part of their marketing campaigns. Company imagines a corporation in which employees don't actually know what their company produces, and what happens when one of them tries to find out.
Syrup, Barry's first novel, examines marketing techniques and internal corporate politics set inside the Coco-Cola Company. Like its successors, it starts with a smart but naive young man just trying to do his job and get ahead, a strong and sexy woman who has the power to make his personal and professional dreams come true, a cold-blooded nemesis who lies and cheats his way to the top, and a spectrum of corporate drones, mindless media types, inept executives, and hip outsiders.
All three books had the same effect on me: I loved their initial premise, liked the characters, bought into the parody for the most part, but ultimately felt that the satire, following a vicious course of logic, strayed a little too far into surrealism. They are all good in the end, all good overall, but there is something unsettling about a strict devotion to the internal logic of the premise taking the story to illogical conclusions. In Syrup, the primary result is repetition in the final act, which costs Barry one star in my estimation.
I got this audiobook when I saw Barry's name, based on past experience with him, and never even looked at the narrator. I wasn't more than three minutes in when I felt the need to increase the playback speed to 1.25, and as soon as I did so, I thought -- this must be Scott Brick. Sure enough. I didn't recognize him at first because this is not as plodding as his normal pace of narration, but it still needed that little bit of speed to pick things up.
Scott Meyer's Magic 2.0 series builds on an interesting premise: present-day computer geeks, using their programming power to travel through time and create other advantages for themselves, appear to be wizards to the people in the past. In Off to Be the Wizard (OTBTW), the first entry in the series, that location was medieval England. In the follow-up, Spell or High Water (SOHW), the primary locale is Atlantis.
For me, SOHW is one star better than OTBTW in every respect. In my review of the first book, I started by noting that it was as fun and funny as I had hoped, but that it was flawed, and I concluded by noting that I hoped Meyer could improve on those flaws in the sequel that obviously on the way. And indeed he has, addressing exactly the two main problems I had, making this a better book and a better listen (narrator Luke Daniels also improves on my problem with his reading of OTBTW, toning down the voices a little, though not enough).
The main thing on the author's end is that is primarily a time travel story, but one in which nothing anyone does in the past changes the future. While it remains true in SOHW that present day outcomes cannot be altered, SOHW allows for a) a possible explanation somewhere down the road of why that is, and more importantly b) possible changes in the timeline of the past they now inhabit, which influences their actions.
In addition, we are no longer confined to medieval England as our setting. We now also have Atlantis, even though it is a mythical setting rather than an historical one. We also have "wizards" and "sorceresses" in Atlantis for a summit who have come from many times and places in the past and present, and while I still yearned for more of that kind of variety, it was an improvement to have even a little of it.
Now, if Meyer can also work in more variation in the present day places the so-called wizards come from, in addition to more locales in the past (mythical or real), that would be even better. And we don't have to wait to find out -- the third volume in the series, and Unwelcome Quest, just came out.
Report Inappropriate Content