New York, NY, United States
I have read five books now by Tim Dorsey, some in print, some in audio. As much as I love them, I hesitate to recommend them, because they really are seriously over the top -- they are not for everyone. In Orange Crush, I have found the exception to that rule.
The other books center on Serge Storms, the lovable sociopath with an encyclopaedic knowledge of Florida. What sets Serge apart from all of the other sociopaths who people Dorsey's Florida is his unique moral compass. I knew Serge was not going to be the main character of Orange Crush (he does figure in as a side character), and I knew I would miss not having him be the protagonist.
But I was pleasantly surprised to find that Marlon Conrad was a capable stand-in for Serge in the moral compass department. Marlon is not deranged like Serge, just naive, despite being governor of Florida. But he regains his political sanity in a remarkable sequence set in war-torn Kosovo and proceeds through the rest of the book as if he is a sane version of Serge setting things right (without, however, the Rube Goldberg murders that are Serge's stock in trade, here left for another character to commit).
So overall, I would heartily recommend Orange Crush to both Dorsey fans and newbies. Fans, don't worry about Serge not being all there -- but fans and newbies alike will enjoy this send-up of politics, written a year after Florida botched the presidential election of 2000. Sure, a lot of the satire is easy-pickings, low-hanging fruit. But Dorsey does a nice job of skewering all points on the spectrum, going to the well-worn but tried-and-true territory of looking at the system from the point of view of a jaded politician having come to his senses.
Marlon, especially after he comes back from Kosovo with his senses newly intact. Serge is the obvious favorite in other books, because he's the one who always ends up doing the right thing, even if he often gets there from wrong angle. In this book, it falls upon Marlon to be that character, and while he is no Serge, he is perfectly capable of carrying this satire. Jack Pimento is also good, starting out as an innocuous staffer but sneaking up on you as you go along.
This is the third Dorsey book I've listened to that was narrated by Wilson, and I've heard a couple of other titles of his by other authors. There's a reason why he is such a prolific audiobook narrator -- he is the consummate pro. While I missed his always entertaining voicing of Serge, he does the other voices well.
This is a black comedy, a political satire. So moments that move you are not supposed to be in the offing. But the section in Kosovo is a complete departure for Dorsey, and much of it is in fact moving, as it is meant to be, since it moves Marlon to become a different kind of person, a better one.
If you're a classic film buff or WWII history buff, Five Came Back is manna from heaven. If, like me, you're both, forget the manna, this is just pure heaven. Five of the greatest directors of the mid-20th century -- Frank Capra, John Ford, William Wyler, George Stevens, John Huston -- left Hollywood to join the army and navy and contribute their particular talents to the war effort, commissioned to make propaganda, training, newsreel and documentary films for the armed services.
The directors' stories are as varied as their personalities. As much biography as history, according to author Mark Harris, this book is just a fascinating look at how Hollywood films were made before and after the war, and how Hollywood contributed to the war effort via filmmaking. In the telling, key moments of WWII history unfold -- the pivotal Battle of Midway in the Pacific, the invasions of North Africa, Italy and Normandy, the Battle of the Bulge, the discovery of the concentration camps, the bombing of Hiroshima.
The book is long, over 20 hours. But the pace of the writing and narration is brisk, holding one's attention throughout -- it was easier to listen to than books half its length that drag in either composition or performance. An interest in either subject is, however, a prerequisite for immersing yourself in this much detail. You probably don't need to have more than the normal level of interest in the war to appreciate this particular angle on D-Day, the war in the Pacific, etc.
But you definitely have to come in with an abiding interest in classic cinema -- there's not much here for you if you're not familar with (and therefore interested in) the making of Capra's Mr. Smith, Mr. Deeds, John Doe, It's a Wonderful Life, or Ford's Grapes of Wrath, Stagecoach, How Greed Was My Valley, They Were Expendable, or Wyler's Bette Davis movies, Mrs. Minivier, Memphis Belle, Best Years of Our Lives, or Huston's Maltese Falcon, Sgt. York, High Sierra, or Stevens's Penny Serenade, The More the Merrier, Woman of the Year, et.al.
Then you learn about the movies they made for the armed forces during their service. If nothing else, this book is worth listening to for the chapter on George Stevens filming conditions at concentration camps when Allied forces first came upon them and uncovered the horrific extent of the Holocaust, footage used as evidence during the Nuremburg trials. About the only thing missing from the audiobook (by definition) is the actual footage, but what I did was look it up on YouTube while I was listening and see it for myself.
There is more depth here in addition to the familiar movie titles and WWII battles. There is (what I found to be) an amazing analysis of the politics leading up to the war, not altogether different than what is going on in politics these days. Even better is how Hollywood came to be was wrapped up in it, part of that being the pre-McCarthy rumblings of anti-Communist friction between Washington and Hollywood. There is also an excellent section toward the end about the difficulties returning veterans endured after the war.
One word of warning: If you're a big Capra fan, be careful, because you will come away with an altered opinion of the man and the movie maker. I am a huge Capra fan from way back, always an apologist against charges of Capra-corn, but having just learned the context of his populist movies, eh, now I'm not so sure -- next time I view any of them, I will be seeing them through a different lens. But then, isn't that the point of a great work of historical and biographical non-fiction like this, to learn something new?
Two novels are being written side by side in Everything is Illuminated. Ukrainian translator Alex is writing his memoirs of working for a visiting American, a fictional author bearing the same name as real life author Jonathan Safran Foer. And the fictional Foer is writing a novel about his Jewish ancestors in Ukraine, from the 18th century through the Holocaust. Bridging the two are letters Alex writes Foer critiquing the most recent chapters Foer has sent to him and introducing his own new chapters.
But Alex doesn't call them chapters, he calls them "divisions". Because Alex is not the world's "most premium" translator. His command of English (or lack thereof) is based on looking words up in a thesaurus, so something hard to do is "rigid" because the thesaurus doesn't help him differentiate between physical hardness and difficulty. It sure must have been fun for Foer (the real life author) to write in Alex's voice and find the malapropisms that make his narration just that much fun.
It must have been commensurately difficult to write as his own alter ego, an exercise in magical realism that recreates Jewish shtetl life, focusing on three characters who are among Foer's ancestors. It must have been especially hard because it culminates in the Holocaust. And it is just as "rigid" to read, by which I don't mean difficult, but hard to enjoy. Two of Foer's ancestors have good stories, the third less so, but the passages that do not specifically follow them are literally unendurable (I wish someone had told me the exact times they start and end so I could skip them, as they add nothing to the story and are, simply, insufferable).
Magical realism was already as passe as the Y2K bug when Foer tried his hand at it, and he's not exactly a prime candidate to join Garcia Marques and Borges in the MR Hall of Fame. His application of magical realism to the holocaust never stands a chance of coming close to Life is Beautiful. And that is most especially true in the lengthy section about nine hours in when none of it makes any sense or is about anything (can you say "self-indulgent", or figure out how Alex would say that?).
In a criticism that I am loathe to make or belabor, his Holocaust story, even if it is indeed based on actual events, and tragic beyond imagination, are (I really hate to say this, being the son of holocaust survivors) not all that interesting compared to many of the other stories that have been told. It's not as interesting as my parents' own tragic stories, and I'm not sure their stories could support a novel, given the existing body of work that has already been told (although my father's testimony is available as part of the Shoah project).
Foer surely understood this, considering the way he turned much of the novel (the best parts), the parts that are not about the Holocaust, into a present-day comedy of how he, with the help of Alex, revisits the events of his family's past, with Alex's blind grandfather as their driver and his seeing eye dog Sammy Davis Jr., Jr. in the back seat passing gas and chewing her own tail. Liev Schreiber must have understood this as well in adapting the book into a movie, focusing on Alex's side of the story.
That part of the story is, however, worth the price of admission. It is priceless (which Alex may, if he had the chance, inadvertently translate as "without value", saying the opposite of what he actually means). If you recall Steve Martin's and Dan Aykroyd's Saturday Night Live skits about the wild and crazy guys, then you have a good idea of what Alex sounds like. It is even more charming because it is so guileless (as Alex signs his letters to Jonathan, mistaking "guilelessly yours" for "yours truly").
I don't know how Alex would come off in print, but in audio, Jeff Woodman totally nails it. I would give it more than five stars if I could, even with Scott Shina taking up half the narration with his fine but not otherwise noteworthy voicing of Foer's part of the story. Woodman is an audiobook treasure, to be sure. Of the books I've listened to, he does English accent throughout The Dog in the Night-Time, Indian in Life of Pi, a variety of petty New York characters in The Hot Rock, and now a Wild and Crazy Guy in this book. As I said, that alone is worth the price of admission.
In the fifth and latest entry in Michael Connelly's Lincoln Lawyer series, Mickey Haller is defending an innocent man accused of murder. Yeah, big surprise -- isn't thas what defense attorneys do in books and movies and on TV? But not necessarily Mickey Haller. His history includes finding a way to prove a client is guilty despite being ethically bound to defend him; prosecuting a case against an exonerated killer he believe is guilty, and having a client kill again after he successfully defends him.
So it's not your standard formula when Haller takes on this case, especially since he remains haunted by the murders committed by the client he helped exonerate -- more than haunted, as his daughter has cut him out of her life because of it (hence one of the interpretations of the title of this book).
Also not your standard formula is the paucity of plot twists and reveals, especially as the story progresses. At some point, all mysteries have been worked out, all secrets revealed, and the remainder, the better part of the last half of the book, is about the trial, the legal maneuvers, the manipulations. I was hoping for one last twist in the final hour, which I've come to expect from Connelly, who excels in that in the books I have read (The Poet, Blood Work, The Lincoln Lawyer).
The lack of that final twist and the overly dramatic and overly facile climax of the trail cost Connelly a star, in my eyes. Only a minor glitch in an otherwise excellent tale, well told, well characterized, well narrated.
What's the audiobook version of "page turner"? For my wife, it's "car sitter" because she sits in the car long after she arrives at her destination, unable to stop listening. For me, it could be "dog torturer" because I make my poor little puggle with the two surgically repaired knees walk miles and miles just so that I can continue listening. It took The Gods of Guilt a couple of hours to get there, but it definitely cost my dog some discomfort once it got rolling and I made him keep walking while I kept listening.
It's just too easy to go for the low hanging fruit and sum this book up as the converse of its title. But then that is exactly the point of the book, that the artistically gifted teen summer campers who dubbed themselves "The Interestings" aren't really special, as one character explicitly admits somewhere along the line -- not even the one character who achieves the pinnacle of success in his chosen art form. Half a century later, they are as uninterestingly ordinary as when they started their little clique.
That's an, uh, interesting premise. But it doesn't necessarily make for interesting reading. It's not that I was uninterested, but I was definitely disinterested -- I just didn't care for them or about them. And it's not for lack of identifying with the characters -- they are exactly my age, from the same city, the same schools, the same career arc, similar artistic endeavors abandoned along the way. In fact, the only character I found at all interesting is the one who is least like me in most ways (still similar in some respects).
I am reminded of the criticism of the movie version of This Is Where I Leave You. I loved that book, in both print and audio, liked the movie well enough. But film critics wondered, "Why would we care about the trivial travails of affluent white suburbanites?" I cared. And yet here I feel nothing for the privileged urbanites of The Interestings, which book critics loved.
I won't try to argue that I'm right in this case where the critics were wrong about TIWILY (if I were to make the case, I'd start with TIWILY being played primarily for laughs, or maybe I'm just a contratrian). But it really all depends on who you like, who you don't like. Maybe these characters will grab you in ways that left me unintersted -- excuse me, disinterested.
Not for the first time in recent memory, I find myself wishing that this book had been heavily edited. Maybe at ten hours, the characterizations would have proven crisper -- lord knows the paucity of plot and action did not require fifteen hours. Thank heavens for Jen Tullock's alacritous reading (her performance is good all around). Actually, I want to read a 250-page book about Jonah. I couldn't care less about the rest of them.
Life of Pi does two things at the same time: it tells an adventure story about a boy surviving in a life raft with a tiger, and it tries to prove the existence of god, or at the very least that life is better if you believe in god. For me, an atheist and humanist who has gone completely apostate from the religion I was born into, the latter effort is a joke with a bad punch line (your experience will surely differ if your beliefs are more closely aligned with those of Pi and his creator, author Yann Martel).
As far as the adventure story goes, this would have been, for me, an excellent novella. But at its actual length, some sections grow tedious, laden with layers of minutiae that are ultimately not germinal to either the survival story or the religious allegory. Then again, Moby Dick is a classic despite possessing that same problem to the nth degree, so what do I know?
What I know is this: That I disagree to the core of my being with Pi and Martell that believability is equivalent to spiritual myopia. There are so many mysteries of the world that have been explained and so many more still searching for explanation. I for one revel in logic over faith. My faith is that everything ultimately has a reasonable explanation, and the true adventure of life is searching out and, if you're lucky, finding answers. Making them up out of whole cloth is not an option, not for me. And I feel no need to search for the divine, wholly satisfied that the humanity within us is sublime.
I feel there are several missed opportunities here. You have a character named Pi, the ultimate symbol of the infinite, a concept that is impossible to truly conceptualize -- so many cosmic mysteries are wrapped up in the conundrum of the infinite. And yet Pi, contrary to his name, wants exactly 100 chapters, and the perfect one-line punch line to his "story that will make you believe in god." This metaphor was either completely missed or totally subverted.
There are also long detailed sections that made me feel I was taking classes in Animal Behavior, Comparative Religion, and Survival Techniques that I expected to act as metaphors. Martell did occasionally seize that opportunity, but not nearly commensurate with his excruciating level of detail. I feel like the flow would have been better, the metaphors more available, had the various elements unfolded concurrently, rather than in sequence.
I also felt that the alternate story that emerges at the end was a huge missed opportunity. Without giving away spoilers, I found myself much more interested in how one version of the story would have emerged from other, but the author simply dismisses this potential line of analysis to deliver his punch line. He discards a number of excellent potential metaphors in the process, choosing to stick with his one main line of thought that, in my opinion, doesn't hold water (pun unintended).
All that said, there was an excellent novella within this book's 350 pages / 11 hours. With some editing, a 250-page / 8-hour version would probably have been worth a rave review, barring my basic philosophical disagreement with the religious themes. I am also thrilled with my choice to listen to the audio version rather than read the print edition -- the narration is the best thing here, providing good storytelling where (I personally believe) the writing itself did not deliver, good enough to elevate my overall ranking of a three-star story to a four-star overall rating.
This book has won prizes and was adapted into a prize-laden movie. So who am I to be the contrarian? I must just be a grouchy cynical infidel. Oh, but it's not just me -- my daughter is reading the book in freshman English and her teacher reported in open school night last week that the kids are complaining about how boring the book is (and she started them off with Life of Pi to give them something interesting to read before diving into the denser waters of Homer, Beowulf, etc.). She was hoping that the adventure section would capture their imagination -- good luck with that, ninth graders sure to be enthralled by long explorations about distilling water, eviscerating turtles, lancing boils, and the like.
Too often, the science in science fiction is just that -- fiction. Of course that must be true by definition since (as some aficionados prefer to cal it) it is meant to be speculative fiction. But when the science in science fiction is actually believable, fact-based, the speculative and fictional aspects become that much more powerful. Such is the case with The Second Ship, the first entry in The Rho Agenda trilogy.
RIchard Phillips (not the same one from Captain Phillips) turned to writing after starting out as an army ranger and then becoming a physicist. So while the writing itself may not be much more than serviceable, the science and technology at the core of this story are spectacular -- as is the character of army ranger Jack Gregory, the author drawing on another of his past lives. Add in a third element -- that Phillips is writing about a famous incident from his original home town of Roswell, New Mexico -- and The Second Ship really clicks.
Without rehashing or relitigating the Roswell conspiracy theories about alien spaceships, Phillips starts his story by accepting the premise that many technological advances of the past 60-70 years may have derived from the recovery of an alien craft that crashed near Roswell. What makes it work for me is that the technology is described in such believable detail, starting with what is scientifically true and extrapolating into scientific speculation.
There is another angle to the scientific rigor of this book is key for me. The main characters are three high school students who derive special powers from the alien technology. My usual reaction to that would be to groan loudly and decry how ovedone that is -- Heroes, X-Men, 4400, Number Four, Mortal Instruments, on and on and on. But the difference here is that the powers are explained right away, the source being alien technology, and much of it manifests itself as mathematical, scientific, or computer proficiency, setting nice role models for YA readers that are attainable in real life.
This may not be for everyone. Some people may not be interested in such exacting scientific detail. Others may be weary of anything arising from the Roswell conspiracy. I found both to be excellent starting points for good YA science fiction set in the present day. I will definitely listen to the next entry in the trilogy, having already procured the audiobook, although after 11+ hours, I'm going to listen to something else as a change of pace before tackling the next 15-hour segment.
There is so much more going on here than the writing and characters crafted by Truman Capote over half a century ago, no matter how good all but one of those words were to Norman Mailer, that it is impossible for me to review Breakfast at Tiffany's in a vacuum, or to give it the rating I really wanted to give it (three stars -- it grows to four stars in my mind after listening to it, taking all of those ancillary issues into account).
There is first and foremost the movie, which I would hazard to guess is universally better known than the original novel. Capote may be an icon in his own right, but when you think about Holly Golightly, you think about Audrey Hepburn. And you think about a naive country girl caught up in the swirl of the big city, ultimately falling in love with her neighbor. None of which, it turns out, was part of Capote's conception.
The book is almost identical to the movie, with two notable exceptions (the wartime setting and the final scene), and yet the book is about a couple of things that are completely and radically different than the movie. I don't think I'd be giving anything away by revealing that Capote's Holly is a call girl and his narrator and alter-ego is gay, since that has been well documented and extensively analyzed. The movie, made during a buttoned-up Hollywood era, sanitized those elements.
Theoretically, that should make the book better than the movie -- the same story, but with more depth and richness, with a more complex sub-text. Especially when you consider that of the real life people who contributed to the character of Holly, the most prominent and important and interesting is Capote's mother, who was absent from his life for most of his childhood, having left the south for New York City.
But it is no accident that the movie beats out the book in pop culture consciousness by a ratio that probably approaches 99-1 percent. This short novel, despite all of the peripheral areas interest that have built up over time, just doesn't evoke the same level of enchantment and romance as the movie, at least not for me. And I'm no shrinking violet when it comes to the issues the book tackles that the movie shies away from.
I've been a big fan of Michael Hall going back to Six Feet Under, and Dexter of course. He does a great job as a celebrity narrator of a classic (his only other audiobook dates back to 2002, before anyone really knew him). Some of his voices didn't work for me, but that may just be me.
Two other side notes: I was floored to hear that Capote's first choice for Holly was Marilyn Monroe. I discovered that only after listening to the audiobook -- the physical description of Holly is so evocative of Audrey Hepburn that you would think he wrote the book with her in mind (actually, that would be after your initial impression that he was describing a boy rather than a girl, even though his real life models were certainly women).
The other note: If you're wondering about the reference to Norman Mailer, he once said that Capote's writing is so good that he wouldn't change two words. Which begs the question -- which one word would he have changed before not wanting to change the second word? Which also begs another question -- as much as I love audiobooks, would this have made more of an impression on me in print? I think not, because my issues are with the depth of the storytelling, not the writing or narration.
If I keep going, my review will be longer than the book, so I'll stop.
Eight hours into The Survivor, I found myself firmly at three and half stars (which is not a ratings option, unfortunately), wondering whether Gregg Hurwitz's action thriller would rise to four or sink to three. I was still open to moving up to four stars despite being disappointed by a number of plot and character points that have clearly been overused over the years:
The hero with PTSD who doubts his courage despite an impressive CV of brave deeds; the ruthless Ukrainian gangsters who let them themselves be talked out of some of their evil intentions by our hero; the dead friend who appears out of survivor guilt (as in Rescue Me); obituaries as metaphor (as in Carl Hiaasen's Basket Case or any of the four recent books titled The Obituary Writer); the daughter's snarky teenage boyfriend who turns out to be a decent guy (as in The Descendants). Oh, I could go on, but I'll stop.
Yet the writing had me hooked despite all that, the plot unfolding in a layered series of twists and reveals that was appealing, and the primary theme of what fathers will do to protect their daughters of great interest to me as a father of two daughters, with that aspect of the story one order of magnitude more complex than some of the other predictable, hackneyed elements.
Unfortunately, the final five hours sent my overall experience down a half-star rather than up. During that overlong period of time, the plot complexities disappear in a wave of action scenes that make this book an obvious choice for Liam Neeson's next movie. Actually, Liam Neeson will probably turn this role down, because he has already played it out several times. The writing and pace of those last five hours are on par with the rest of the book, which is a good thing, but the plotting and characterization all but ceased to move forward.
A disappointment for me, having greatly enjoyed my first Hurwitz title, Tell No Lies, and seeing huge potential in this book's opening hook -- a man about to commit suicide being drawn off the ledge to stop a deadly bank heist. I'm sure I will give Hurwitz another chance because his writing, in this genre, is very good. But as others have said, I would love to take a break from Scott Brick (I'll give him credit for only requiring 1.25x speed this time instead of the usual 1.5x, but his overly dramatic readings are wearing me out).
Fascinating and droll, Connie Willis's short novel Bellwether hooked me from the start with its overarching metaphor about fads. And then it kept me hooked (and chuckling almost incessantly) with its wry observations about working in a corporate office environment and living in a world of self-policed social conformity.
That sounds like quite a mouthful, but it's not all that complicated: this is pretty much the same idea as The Big Bang Theory -- the real (and really funny) lives of scientific researchers -- with the notable difference that the main character is perplexed by fads rather than, like the Big Bang guys, devoted to (certain types of) them.
Two things I take away from this book, other than the straightforward fact of enjoying it immensely for its observations and humor: its setting and its metaphor. So many books, movies, TV shows are about people most of us can never be -- policemen, lawyers, doctors, secret agents, etc. Not really a surprise -- those are the occupations that offer up a broad range of dramatic life or death plot lines, especially for serial versions of their respective media.
But we don't usually relate to them directly. By contrast, a smaller number of works are about real people working everyday jobs in the most common setting -- the office. And yet so many of those become popular because we can relate to the setting, not least of which is The Office. The Big Bang Theory is so good not because of the rare profession of its characters, but because it shows their day to day lives at the office and at home (of course, for the purposes of sit-com).
Bellwether is likewise about Ph.D. scientists, and their research provides a metaphorical background, but there is immense appeal in their office environment and politics and relationships, and in what they have to do just to get a cup of coffee or iced tea, let alone get their projects funded. Great stuff.
The other irresistible aspect of Bellwether is its metaphor -- fads. It is, in my opinion, a rare feat of literary prowess to come up with a metaphor so powerful that we are as much interested in it as in what it symbolizes. Every section of Bellwether features an exploration of at least one fad (hula hoops, Rubik's cubes, coffee houses, hair styles, etc.). The details are simply fascinating in and of themselves, but they also come full circle in their respective sections in symbolizing that part of the proceedings. Again, great stuff.
One other aspect of Bellwether is worth mentioning. It doesn't quite rise to the level of fads as metaphor, but it comes close -- the examples of scientific breakthroughs that came as the result of accident or luck or serendipity or some unexpected sequence of events. This metaphor is not quite as pervasive as fads, even though it starts off the story and plays a large role in its conclusion. Still quite interesting, but not as completely captivating.
I've always enjoyed reading young adult fiction, which I have always done to keep up with what my daughters are reading. In the best YA books, there is more than enough to keep adults interested -- even children's movies like Toy Story and Shrek had plenty of adult in-jokes to keep me hooked over many viewings when my kids were at that age when they watched those movies over and over again.
Cragbridge Hall seems to have all the requisite qualities to work quite well for its target age group, middle schoolers (hard for me to say definitively because I haven't been in that target age group since the Johnson administration). But it does not have that extra oomph adults need in YA. Harry Potter, among many other qualities that adults can appreciate, has all the mythological and literary references adults would recognize while the kids are dazzled by magic. The Hunger Games has the social subtext, Divergent has the psychological subtext.
This story, which takes place 60 years from now, has some cool technology (rather than magic, which is refreshing) -- mainly (but not solely) a time machine that allows students to relive history (although, for some reason I can't fathom, the historical episodes are almost exclusively American or British from the 19th and early 20th centuries). The main characters must solve a series of clues, most of them quite clever, in order to discover the inventor's secret of the title and save him -- and their parents, and themselves, and the world, of course. And the book does grow on you as it goes along (or at least it did for me).
The bottom line: If you're in middle school, you will most likely enjoy this book. If I was in middle school, I'd give it five stars. But my daughter isn't even in middle school anymore, having just started high school, so I can't even recommend it to her. If you're an adult, read it if your middle school kids are reading it. Otherwise, you may happen to like it anyway, but not because it has any special appeal for adults.
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