Friday, March 25, 2011

Book #13: "The Constant Gardener" by John Le Carre

John Le Carre is an amazing writer. That was the main thing I got out of this fantastic, thrilling book. I don't know why I'd never read any of his work before, but after this one, I think I'm going to need to pick up more than a few of his books. He has this incredibly simple but elegant way of writing, where the sentences just flow perfectly together and draw you into the story so well that before you know it you've read half the book in just a few hours.

The book (on which the movie was based) takes place in Kenya, where the British High Commission works to aid the impoverished nation. Justin Quayle for for the BHC, and is married to Tessa, a passionate young woman determined to really help the population in Kenya by fighting the corporations that want to make a profit from pretending to help them. At the start of the book (it's not a spoiler, as it happens in the first page), Tessa is found murdered, and Justin begins to investigate the details behind her very suspicious death. He soon finds out that Tessa was involved in uncovering the truth behind the deaths of Kenyans who were using a drug promoted by a rich pharmaceutical company, and that they might be responsible for her death. The story quickly escalates into a dangerous mission for Justin, as he travels around the world trying to find out the truth behind his wife's murder.

It's a great thriller of a story, and Le Carre keeps things moving at a fast pace. The book slows down slightly in the middle as Justin hops to yet another international destination, but it's still a fun read. Le Carre writes some great characters, all with distinct voices and personalities, and you really do end up caring a great deal about Tessa and Justin. The story might be unrealistic at times, but I think that when a thriller is really good, you don't really care that much.

All in all, I loved this book. The writing is a pleasure to read, the mystery is engrossing, and the characters are believable. I don't ask for much more from a thriller, and this one delivered. I highly recommend it.

PS: The movie is also pretty great. But so very, very depressing.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Book #12: "Lisey's Story" by Stephen King

Oh, Stephen King, I wish I knew how to quit you. Even when you give me this bizarre, often-irritating mess of a book, I still find things to like about it. And I know I'll still read whatever you write, even when I (and pretty much the entire world) have a feeling that maybe you should have stopped a long time ago.

Lisey's Story is a strange soup made up of a confusing mix of the ingredients Stephen King loves and that we long-time readers are all too familiar with: There's the story told from a lonely woman's perspective; a woman who is so normal she's almost dull. The dead husband, who (of course) was a famous author. Their loving relationship and his dark past. The Maine setting. And as always, a sprinkling of the supernatural--in this case, a very convenient parallel world that only very special people can travel in and out of with relative ease. As usual with King, most of the ingredients work for most of the book, up until the end when they start to go a little stale.

Lisey is a fairly dull woman who lost her husband, Scott (a famous writer), a couple of years ago. She's finally going through his effects after being pushed to it by former peers of her husband who want any unwritten material he might have left behind. As she goes through his papers, she finds herself reliving moments in their life, including some very dark memories that she has blocked out of her mind. She then discovers that before his death, Scott left behind a trail of objects and papers that would take her further and further back into his very dark past and make her remember all those suppressed memories. It's like a miserable scavenger hunt, that Scott calls a 'bool' for some unexplained reason (more on this later). Lisey follows along, mostly because she doesn't have much of anything else to do.

It's actually all pretty interesting stuff to read--up until the point where King's train goes off the believable trail and crashes into that damned parallel world that he's so fond of. I would try to explain the parallel world here, but it would spoil the story for those who might consider reading it. And to be perfectly honest, it just doesn't make much sense at all. It actually ends up seeming like nothing more than a convenient device that makes plot points easy to resolve--as if King couldn't think of a good way for Lisey to solve her problems. It just doesn't make a whole lot of sense, and sometimes the story veers into outright silly territory because of it.

One of the things I've always loved about King is that he writes believable, relatable characters. He's great at giving his characters a voice, so that you feel like you know them after only a few pages. Often, he does this by giving the characters cutesy little sayings like the kind your elderly aunt uses, and it works pretty well most of the time. But in this case, I just found this irritating. It's true that married couples often use cute little nicknames for things, little in-jokes that only the two can understand, and I get that using them in a story is a good way to draw a realistic couple. But Lisey and Scott are just ridiculous. Every damned thing has a cute little nickname, and I just found myself thinking that I would probably hate the living guts out of Scott if I ever met him. Sure, it might be cute between the two of you, but I don't want to hear the stupid little name you have for going to the toilet. No one does. Keep that stuff to yourself.

The weird thing is, I don't remember disliking the book this much while I was reading it. I know that the nickname thing did irritate me, and that the parallel universe seemed ridiculous as I read. But Lisey's actual trip back through her memories is actually a pretty good read--it's just that it's sprinkled throughout with all these annoying little details that take you away from the story, and that, when you think about them at the end, make you realize that the book was kind of a mess. And I haven't even gone into the superfluous subplots (Lisey's sister, the psychotic fan) because they seem to be part of a completely different story. I feel that, had King stuck to the one story of Lisey and Scott (and maybe a better version of the parallel world) the book would have been infinitely better. But, as is usual with him, he just has to keep adding more and more elements to the book, so that it ends up being a bloated, unappetizing mess. In the end, I liked some of it. Most of it I didn't, and once again I got the feeling that it could have been a better book if he had spent a little more time on it. One of King's problems is that he writes so much that a lot of his books don't read like he's put a lot of effort into them. And this was one of those.

So, unless you're a die-hard fan of Stephen King like I am, I'd recommend skipping this book. We die-hards will indulge him in all his weirdnesses and continue to read him even after he irritates us, but someone else might not be so kind. While I go "oh, another parallel universe? OK, then" someone else might just think the whole thing is ridiculous and stop reading the book. And that would probably be a smart move in this case. At least you'll be spared the disappointment.

It's not a very healthy relationship, mine and King's. But I can't quit it. There's always the hope of something better coming along the way, even if I have to put up with a lot of crap along the way.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Monday Hot Post: Figgy's New Crushes

I've given my blog over to my 15 year old self today, who, to be perfectly honest, is within 2 seconds of Normal Me at any given time, ready to take over at the mere sight of a really pretty boy on my TV. As I said over in the Twitterverse: I sincerely hope I never get too old to stop getting crushes on random male celebrities. What do you want from me? I'm allowed to like the pretty! MrFig told me so*. Plus, I need a distraction from waiting around and being stressed and dammit, it's my party and I'll objectify if I want to.

*I gather this from the fact that he just narrows his eyes and shakes his head when I point out how cute so-and-so is. I wonder if he'll read this and shake his head some more. Hi, honey!

Today's post is testament to the fact that my crushes are easily interchangeable, depending mostly on what my thirty-second attention span is focusing on at that moment. I mean, there's always the Unshakable Freebies (Eric Bana, Sean Bean, Christian Bale), but some crushes fade as they leave my screen, like Naveen Andrews or Reynaldo Giannechini. What can I tell you? My love, like life, is fickle. A leaf turning in the wind, drifting down the stream--

Oh god, shut up and show us some hot mens. Alright. Here we go.

1. Kyle Chandler

Hey, have you watched Friday Night Lights yet? Why the hell not? Don't be an idiot like I was for so long and stay away from one of the best shows of all time because you think it's just about football. Because it SO is not. It's brilliantly written and acted, and I've never seen such realistic portrayals of people and relationships before. It's amazing and you should all watch it. Plus, there's Taylor Kitsch goodness.

And look at that pretty, pretty smile!

Ooh, Kyle Chandler. One manly clench of that jaw, one look at that bristling head of hair and I'm a puddle of goo. He wears shorts and sneakers and still looks incredibly good. And he's got a voice to melt butter. Oh, Coach. You and your magnificent head of hair make my life happier.

Speaking of magnificent heads of hair...

2. Adam Scott

OK, this one's a little bit different for me. He's almost the complete opposite of my type--he's short, really skinny, and kinda weird looking. I mean, he has a giant head. And his hair makes him look like a hedgehog. But damn, this guy's got something that makes me giggle like a 15 year old.

Lemme give ya a little eyebrow

It's partly the fact that he's incredibly funny (speaking of shows you should watch, have you tried Party Down or Parks and Recreation? Because you seriously should) and has these incredible reactions to everything, and then he has this great voice, and the eyebrows, and just... HE IS SO DAMN CUTE:

And hedgehog like...

*Ahem* Yeah, I really can't get any more eloquent than that. I think this is a guy you need to watch act to get his appeal, though damn, he's cute in photos, too. He's quickly shot up my list of favorites, and I'll never tell anyone just how many times I've watched both of his shows lately. Over and over and over again. I have a problem.

Now, on the complete opposite side of the spectrum, we have...

3. Chris Hemsworth

Or as I like to call him: The Hemsworth that matters. The first time I looked at this dude I dismissed him as too pretty for my tastes. He's a former model and looks it, in those cheesy little poses. And then...oh, my.

I'm not even gonna beat around the bush on this one (*giggletitterIamagiantidiot*): the guy is huge. A mountain of a man. I mean, he's playing freakin' Thor, for crying out loud. And what with my complete obsession with any movie featuring superheroes, and, well, this:

And this:

The hammer is his...oh, shut up soon can I get tickets?

Speaking of movies I can't wait to see...

4. Richard Armitage

This sexy-voiced Brit first came to my attention after a friend recommended I watch the mini-series North and South, one of those dark-and-gloomy British period pieces. I loved it. He spent a lot of time brooding. In an incredibly sexy manner, of course:



His upcoming film? The Hobbit. Yeah, that one. Alas, he'll probably be all covered up in hair and many layers of clothes, so we won't get to see him like this:

Hey, PJ? I have an awesome idea for the Thorin character...


Well, that's it for now. I hope you enjoyed looking as much as I enjoyed putting this damned thing together.

May we never stop liking to look at the pretty men.

Friday, March 11, 2011

All my Cannonball 1 Reviews

This is more for my own benefit than anything else, but I thought this would be a handy post to refer to when I mention books I've read in the past. These are all the reviews I wrote for the first Cannonball, way back in '08 and '09. It's funny to see how I started out strong with the reviews, then got to around 40 books and I totally deflated. But, in my defense, that was around the time of the coup in Honduras and the nightmare with getting my visa, and writing book reviews was the farthest thing from my mind. Then I just read and read and let the reviews pile up, then just never got around to writing the last 50 or so. How embarrassing. One good thing that might come of this is that I've learned a lesson and won't let the reviews wait too long.

Anyway. There's some good stuff in here, and I had fun putting the list together and reading through some reviews. I like how I go from High-Fallutin' Intellectual Wannabe to Cussing Like a Pirate and Not Really Trying from one review to the next. I'm nothing if not inconsistent.

1. "The Time Traveler's Wife" by Audrey Niffenegger

2. "Everything is Illuminated" by Jonathan Safran Foer

3. "Why Girls Are Weird" by Pamela Ribon

4. "Everything's Eventual" by Stephen King

5. "Embers" by Sandor Marai

6. "The Witch of Portobello" by Paolo Coelho

7. "On Writing" by Stephen King

8. "A Thousand Splendid Suns" by Khaled Hosseini

9. "Night Sins" by Tami Hoag

10. "Guilty As Sin" by Tami Hoag

11. "How to Get Lost" by Amanda Eyre Ward

12. "The Hours" by Michael Cunningham

13. "The First Wives' Club" by Olivia Goldsmith

14. "The Testament" by John Grisham

15. "The Rescue" by Nicholas Sparks

16. "When the Wind Blows" by James Patterson

17. "Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister" by Gregory Maguire

18. "The Partner" by John Grisham

19. "Hannibal" by Thomas Harris

20. "Marie Antoinette" by Hilaire Belloc

21. "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" by John Berendt

22. "The Corrections" by Jonathan Franzen

23. "Ain't Gonna be the Same Fool Twice" by April Sinclair

24. "Wicked" by Gregory Maguire

25. "Cry Wolf" by Tami Hoag

26. "Teacher Man" by Frank McCourt

27. "Tiburcio Carias Andino" by Mario Argueta

28. "The Golden Compass" by Phillip Pullman

29. "The Subtle Knife" by Phillip Pullman

30. "The Amber Spyglass" by Phillip Pullman

31. "Black Hawk Down" by Mark Bowden

32. "Sense and Sensibility" by Jane Austen

33. "Lady Chatterley's Lover" by DH Lawrence

34. "Walking the Bible" by Bruce Feiler

35. "The House of Spirits" by Isabel Allende

36. "Outlander" by Diana Gabaldon

37. "Dragonfly in Amber" by Diana Gabaldon

38. "Me Talk Pretty One Day" by David Sedaris

39. "High Fidelity" by Nick Hornby

40. "Voyager" by Diana Gabaldon

41. "Bridget Jones's Diary" by Helen Fielding

42. "Drums of Autumn" by Diana Gabaldon

43. "Ender's Game" by Orson Scott Card

44. "Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason" by Helen Fielding

45. "The Talisman" by Stephen King and Peter Straub

46. "Rainbow Six" by Tom Clancy

47. "The Godfather" by Mario Puzo

48. "The Fiery Cross" by Diana Gabaldon

49. "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius" by Dave Eggers

50. "The Godfather Returns" by Mark Winegardner

51. "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" by JK Rowling

52. "The Street Lawyer" by John Grisham

53. "From a Buick 8" by Stephen King

54. "A Breath of Snow and Ashes" by Diana Gabaldon

55. "Airs Above Ground" by Mary Stewart

56. "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets" by JK Rowling

57. "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" by JK Rowling

58. "To Kill a Mockingbird" by Harper Lee

59. "Jurassic Park" by Michael Crichton

60. "Smith of Wooton Major and Farmer Giles of Ham" by JRR Tolkien

61. "Good Omens" by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett

62. "Son of a Witch" by Gregory Maguire

63. "The Three Musketeers" by Alexandre Dumas

64. "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" by JK Rowling

65. "The Kite Runner" by Khaled Hosseini

66. "Sex and the City" by Candace Bushnell

67. "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" by JK Rowling

68. "The Outsiders" by S. E. Hilton

69. "Neverwhere" by Neil Gaiman

70. "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" by Douglas Adams

71. "Rage" by Stephen King

72. "The Long Walk" by Stephen King

73. "The Restaurant at the end of the Universe" by Douglas Adams

74. "Roadwork" by Stephen King

75. "The Running Man" by Stephen King

76. "Life, the Universe and Everything" by Douglas Adams

77. :So Long, and Thanks for all the Fish" by Douglas Adams

78. "Persuasion" by Jane Austen

79. "Mostly Harmles" by Douglas Adams

80. "Coraline" by Neil Gaiman

81. "Fire and Hemlock" by Diana Wynne Jones

82. "The Stand" by Stephen King

83. "The Man in the Iron Mask" by Alexandre Dumas

84. "Under the Tuscan Sun" by Frances Mayes

85. "Dolores Claiborne" by Stephen King

86. "The Da Vinci Code" by Dan 'Hack Job' Brown

87. "The Lovely Bones" by Alice Sebold

88. "Dracula" by Bram Stoker

89. "The Langoliers" by Stephen King

90. "The Library Policeman" by Stephen King

91. "To the Nines" by Janet Evanovich

92. " Day of the Triffids" by John Wyndham

93. "The Catcher in the Rye" by JD Salinger

94. "The Stranger" by Albert Camus

95. "Cuentos de Eva Luna" by Isabel Allende

96. "Desperation" by Stephen King

97. "Pride and Prejudice" by Jane Austen

98. "In Cold Blood" by Truman Capote

99. "Airframe" by Michael Crichton

100. The Brethren by John Grisham

Conclusions: I read a lot of crap there at the end, just desperately trying to make it to 100. But I did! Even if some of the books barely fit the rules. I hope to do much better this year.

Book #11: "The Ministry of Special Cases" by Nathan Englander

If there's anything I hate more than reading a bad book, it's to be disappointed by a book I thought would be good. I came into this one with high hopes, as I had heard nothing but good things about it-funny, tragic, original, etc- and I could not have been more disappointed. I'm still not sure how I got through this plodding, miserable and depressing read, but it must have been a combination of stubbornness and of my dislike for leaving any book unfinished.

The story is set in Argentina in the 1970s, during a military dictatorship; a particularly dark time in the country's history. Kaddish Poznan is Jewish, the son of a prostitute, and he specializes in erasing the names off tombs in the Jewish cemetery; specifically, the closed-off section that houses the tombs of pimps and prostitutes. He is paid to do this by wealthy Jews who don't want to be associated with their darker pasts. He's reluctantly assisted by his son, Pato, a young college student with communist leanings. His wife, Lilian, works as a secretary and dotes on their son.

One day their son disappears for seemingly no reason at all. His disappearance takes over all of Lilian's life, as she spends days and days at the Ministry of Special Cases, a bizarre building that's a bureaucratic nightmare, where people are made to wait outside in the sun for hours and days just for a turn to talk to someone who can't help them. Kaddish, less optimistic than his wife, is pretty sure their son is dead.

And I just didn't give a damn about any of it. Aside from the terrible flashbacks of Honduran bureaucracy brought up by the scenes at the Ministry, this whole book just washed over me and left me feeling completely and utterly bored. None of it ever connected; not the characters or their terrible tragedy, not the setting, nothing at all. Which was just surprising to me, because I thought that I'd readily connect to a book that deals with a story that was repeated all through Latin America in the 70s and 80s--my parents lived through this, and still I didn't give a damn what happened to any of these characters!

It's hard for me to remember why all I felt for this book was an overwhelming sense of apathy. I think a big part of it was that the characters didn't feel like real people to me. They were like ghosts, and for all that Englander documents Lilian's misery, it just felt so clinical to me. Lilian and Kaddish felt like they lived in completely different worlds, which I suppose was the point (they never connect to each other), but to me they felt like characters in two completely different stories. I never felt that the two were even remotely connected. Pato is just a sketch of a character, and it was hard to grasp just what the character was like, or why I should care about him.

The writing felt dry and heartless to me. Scenes were disjointed and there didn't seem to be a running thread through the whole thing. I think we were supposed to feel the same sense of confusion and isolation that Lilian felt in her search for her son, but I don't think we were supposed to feel completely outside of it, to the point where you just stop caring about the whole thing.

I don't know if this will make much sense to anyone, but to me, the book felt like a bad Spanish-to-English translation of a better book. It felt as if the words didn't quite fit, as if they would maybe have more of an impact in a different language; as if it had been written by a very dry, very bad translator. The words just didn't fit the story. I really hate that I can't explain it any better than that, but maybe it'll make some sense to someone.

I came into this with high expectations, and they were dashed pretty quickly. I kept expecting the story to pick up, for the writing to get smoother, to start caring about the characters. But that never happened. Though there are scenes of graphic violence and what I guess is supposed to be terrible sadness, I never felt anything but apathetic towards this book. I didn't hate it; I just didn't care.

I guess they can't all be winners. I'm just annoyed that this one wasn't.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Book #10: "Diary of a Manhattan Call Girl" by Tracy Quan

Oh, sweet Jeebus on a cracker, what a terrible turd of a book this was. Let me tell you the many, many ways in which this book quickly launched itself to the very top of my Trash list.

Our protagonist, Nancy Chan, is a high-end call-girl. She has always wanted to be a prostitute (um...ok, whatever), and at 20 something she's raking in the money by having sex with creepy, rich, old guys. She is also -oh, no! the conundrum!- engaged to a rich, incredibly bland dude (more like a cardboard cutout for all the personality he has) and is being pressured by her ditzy friend to join a group that promotes the rights of sex-workers.

That should least kind of fun to read, wouldn't you think? After all, the cover quoted "Cosmopolitan" (oh that bastion of high literature and fun, fun times!) saying that it was "chock full of dirty secrets!" (or some shit like that), so you really shouldn't expect more than a bunch of dirty sex scenes and fun in the high life of sex with balding men in their 60s! The cover had a BUTT on it! How could we go wrong in our pursuit of a mindlessly fun book to read quickly in boring moments? HOW!

By doing every single thing that you could possibly do wrong in writing a book. First: Make your book into a "diary", because God knows that shit isn't done to death, especially in chick-lit. Hey, it worked for Bridget Jones, and how hard can it be? Start by making your protagonist into an insufferable, spineless, whiny little victim who goes to the therapist a lot to whine about her stupid little problems that she could easily get out of if she had even the slightest bit of self-respect. Then, have her pepper her journal entries with inane little asides, a lot of "dirty" words (Oh, my! she said "pussy"! How naughty!) and a lot of boring stories about having sex with disgusting old men who want to have sex with young girls and pay to do it in fancy hotels in between business meetings. Have her friends be walking, reprehensible female stereotypes of the worst sort (Allison is ditzy! Jasmine is a total power slut! Her fiance's sister is a bitch because she's got a powerful job!) , and add a fiance who seems to be a complete fuckwit who somehow hasn't discovered that his fiance is a prostitute. Add to it a painfully boring subplot involving a bunch of bra-burning feminist stereotypes, a lot of seriously pathetic 'dramatic' moments (oh, no! she forgot to bring condoms! WHAT IS SHE TO DO!) and you have just one big painful insult to not only women and prostitutes, but to the entire world and very existence of books.

Just...holy hell, this book was irritating. Worse, it was boring. It starts off with one of those stupid little sex scenes that seem to have been written by a 15 year old girl who isn't quite sure how sex works but thinks that saying 'pussy' and 'cock' and 'whore' a lot immediately makes something titillating. But, no. It's just boring. You might as well be reading a recipe book for all the excitement that's in it. Nothing even remotely exciting happens to this chick, but somehow she does nothing but whine about how difficult her life is, mostly because she has incredibly stupid friends. I wanted to take this girl aside and just tell it plain to her face: If something in your life is giving you shit, get the fuck rid of it. If your friend is a pain in the ass who makes you do things you don't want to do, and she irritates the hell out of you, why are you friends with her? If you are conflicted about keeping your whoring life secret from your fiance, whom you don't really seem to have any real connection with, why don't you either tell him or break it off? You, young lady, are a spineless coward and need to get your life straight. It's not that fucking hard.

I'm devoting way too much time to this book, and I know it. But like I said in my last entry, when you hate something, you can pretty easily think of a million different reasons why you hated it. Believe me, I could keep going on and on with this, but suffice it to say that this book was a waste of my time and a perfect 99 cents. I could have bought a cup of tea with that money, and it would have been an infinitely more entertaining exercise. I could use it as a doorstop and it would serve a better purpose than as literature.

Oh, here's a fun tidbit I found out after I read the book. Apparently, Tracy Quan started this whole turd of a 'series' by writing it as a column for Salon, she's a former call-girl herself and probably most of the book was written from experience. Thanks, wikipedia. Now I have an even bigger reason to dislike this woman--you have all this wealth of probably great stories in your life, and this is what you chose to unleash on the world? Maybe you could have been better off selling your stories to someone who could actually write a sentence without sounding like a whiny teenager. Because, lady, your book sucked.