Four Epiphanies

Instead of listing my favorite books of 2010, I’ve decided to summarize a few of the ideas that emerged from my reading & listening this year and, the titles that informed them:

Aggregating Grief

Grief is a very special kind of pain in that it is often born of love and has the power to break you or transform you. Note that I did not say that it can “make you or break you” because 1) I eschew cliches and 2) it’s not true. There is no doubt that grief can break you; but I balk at the idea that “what you survive makes you stronger.” Tragedy may reveal a hitherto undiscovered strength; but with equal dexterity it can prey upon weakness as well. Grief will extort all of one’s resources of character to survive and it’s never pretty. It’s tragic. Earlier this year, I reviewed Atiq Rahimi’s Earth to Ashes and The Patience Stone both of which illustrated this very powerful concept. Looking back, I can also see how the theme was masterfully executed in Thomas Trofimuk’s Waiting for Columbus.

Sensible vs Sensual Reading

In a guest post and giveaway on Jenn’s Bookshelf, C.J. Lyons, author of the Angels of Mercy series, wrote about Sensing vs Intuitive Types. In responding in the comments, I made a similar distinction with my own reading: that I am a “primarily a “sensible” reader, able to discern patterns and structures within a book ergo issues w/construction of the story. Every once in while though, a story will be so powerful I feel like I’m experiencing the story rather than reading it. I guess that for those books (very rare for me) I become a “sensual” reader!” The book that did it for me this year was Matterhorn (by Karl Marlantes; narrated by Bronson Pinchot.)

The Space Between the Lights

In reading and reviewing Scott Phillips’ The Ice Harvest (narrated by Grover Gardner) I came to understand true noir vs gritty realism. Gritty realism is what you find in Richard Price’s Lush Life, a police procedural about the shooting death of a bartender. The narrator, Bobby Canavale, has an ear for the cadence and vocabulary and the you can see the story play out in your mind’s eye, much like a season of The Wired :-/ However profane the situations are though, the characters are imbued with just enough pathos to render them recognizable or sympathetic to the readers. With noir, however, characters are often severely damaged, the tone is unrelentingly harsh and the sordidness can be grueling. The Ice Harvest actually has some comic moments to relieve the tension in that Scott Phillips does not shy away from the absurd; but if you really want some hardcore noir, I don’t know if you can beat James Ellroy’s The Black Dahlia. Narrated by Stephen Hoye, The Black Dahlia pulls the listener into the gutter and it’s almost easy to lose sight of the fact that the story is very well crafted.

The True Horror

In a genre-busting move, this year I started reading a little horror. It didn’t start out that way. It actually all began with the beautifully written novel, The Angels are the Reapers (by Alden Bell; narrated by Tai Sammons) which led to I am Legend (by Richard Matheson; narrated by Robertson Dean) which has now led to me listening to Hell House (by Richard Matheson; narrated by Ray Porter.) And I discovered, it’s not about the monsters, it’s about the humans and, the true horror is not in the ghoulishness of the zombie/vampire/mutants/monsters; but in what we as humans have allowed or will allow ourselves to become. There will be more on this later as I think about stuff like civilization, music, mirrors, evolutions and circles…

Actually, there will be more on each of these themes in 2011. Atiq Rahimi’s third novel, A Thousand Rooms of Dreams and Fear comes out on January 11 and I’m eager to see if it is yet another exposition on the idea of “Aggregating Grief.” In terms of looking for another book that will blow me away the same way that Matterhorn did, well, I don’t actually go looking for it. Only twelve titles in fifteen years have made my personal Audiobook Pantheon of All-Time Greats and, each time it was a complete surprise to me. I never know what chemistry of words and narrator will affect me! As for the noir genre, you’ll probably start seeing words like “existentialism” and “nihilism” thrown in for good measure in future noir novel reviews. I’m thinking about hitting up the Parker series (by Richard Stark a.k.a Donald Westlake; narrated by Michael Kramer) or possibly more James Ellroy, though that’s tougher to find in unabridged audio CDs or in digital dnload. I’m also hoping to return to the horror genre’s prototypes, Dracula (by Bram Stoker) and Frankenstein (by Mary Shelley; narrated by Simon Vance.) I did read the latter in print earlier this year, but I think another read with a different mindset might be in order.


I am Legend

I am Legend

by Richard Matheson
narrated by Robertson Dean
5.30 recorded hours
A couple of months ago, I was in a hotel room with a flat screen TV, cable, and a remote all to myself and the moment was glorious! The offering across many channels that night was I am Legend (starring Will Smith) and so that’s what I settled into that night. I had not read the book or read any reviews about it so I didn’t know to be outraged at the deviations from the original story by Richard Matheson or even what it was about. The film features a scientist, Robert Neville, who barricades himself in his home and lab while a viral contagion sweeps the world as we know it and turns everyone into mutants. The two items that caught my attention in the film were that The Infected (apparently something on the order of zombie vampires) were living in communities (“hives”) and that they adapted in order to survive. I was hoping that the original book would explore those themes more. When I reviewed The Reapers Are the Angels (by Alden Bell; narrated by Tai Sammons) I was reminded of the film, something about the loneliness of the protagonists, that both had undertaken missions in their new world landscapes and, some ineffable quality that must be the stylistic glue that defines post-apocalyptic tales. Le0pard13, in his comments to The Reapers are the Angels brought I am Legend, the audiobook to my attention and so I made it a point to go borrow a copy from Blackstone (The irony of other reviewers bringing audiobooks that are in the Blackstone catalog to my attention does not escape me. That said, Blackstone produces a lot of audiobooks and it’s physically impossible for me to have listened to them all.)

The horror genre has lousy PR. When the horror label is slapped on a work, images of lumbering monsters like Frankenstein or campy ghouls like zombies come to mind. Despite that fact that the prototypes of the horror genre, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Bram Stoker’s Dracula are very rich in literary style and content, the film industry has corrupted the idea of what horror is about and given us Bela Lugosi and CGI-enhanced zombies. True horror is not about the monsters, it’s about what it is to be human. True tales of horror delve into the human psyche and explore what it is that makes us human in the face of dehumanizing or inhumane conditions. When it’s clear that the antagonists are undead, it’s an easy call to make as to what makes us human; but what about when maybe some of the antagonists are not as undead as the others? Or it’s someone you know? Or when you feel a sympathy or understanding for one or more of them?

The idea of what makes us human not only resides in the contrasts or relative comparisons, but in our sense of history. When you are the only one who remembers the past, who are you in the new world? What if your memory is a legacy that is not valued in the new world? What is it to survive in a place where there is no past but you are compelled not merely to survive but move forward? Who are you? What are you?

The audiobook is narrated by Robertson Dean who reflects the pathos and the vacillating sanity of Robert Neville, the last known survivor in a world plagued by vampires. There are hysterical gasps as Robert Neville reaches out for love, alcohol-fueled bouts of insanity, the raspiness of a little-used voice, the intellect of a man grasping at the last vestiges of civilization and his own sense of self and, the resignation of a man who understands all too well the fate at hand. The range of Robert Neville’s psychological states is expressed with all due flair and nuance by a narrator clearly connected to the text, to the story, to the man that is Robert Neville. The vampires in the story are foils against which the tragedy of Robert Neville is played out.

As for the movie starring Will Smith, it is not Richard Matheson’s story in style, content or spirit. I don’t expect movies to adhere to the novels they are based on but I am disappointed when the screenwriters completely abandon the spirit of the writing as is the case with I Am Legend. In the movie, there are hints of Robert Neville’s pathos ( e.g. the scene with the cartoons;) but all the events that lead to a fuller examination of what it is to be human, the set-ups that would have truly made this a first class horror film, were removed and replaced with action-adventure sequences. The movie is I am Legend in name only.

n.b. Le0pard13, in his blog Lazy Thoughts from a Boomer, has a comparative review post featuring the graphic novel, the three movies that were based on I am Legend and the audiobook. Check it out!

South Asian Challenge 2011

To promote more people reading South Asian literature, Swapna Krisna is sponsoring the South Asian Challenge 2011. There have been a couple of changes to the challenge from last year, which broadens its scope and appeal: While any book’s setting must take place in a South Asian country, the title does not necessarily have to be written by a South Asian and; there is a one-book commitment 🙂
Last year, I did not meet my three-book commitment (hangs head in shame.) I only read one title, The White Tiger (by Aravind Adiga) but I had managed to cache quite a number of qualifying titles for the challenge anyway. Now in an effort to make significant headway into by TBR stacks, I think I can manage to read at least one of the South Asian books in that stack!
Some of the titles I am considering:
Shantaram (by Gregory David Roberts; narrated by Humphrey Bower) – an epic tale about an escaped Australian convict who ends up in India. This story has it all: love, loyalty, pageantry, squalor… Yes, I’ve listened to all 42+ hours of this audiobook before but I would love to listen to it again. It’s that good.
Sacred Games (by Vikram Chandra) – I have this in both print and audio (narrated by Anil Margsahayam) – I may not be able to follow this in audio so I have a backup print edition, just in case
Satanic Verses (by Salman Rushdie; narrated by Sam Dastor) – This is a title I may combine with the What’s in a Name Challenge #4 for the category in which readers pick a title with “evil” in the title. I have to admit though, I find it a little intimidating and may instead end up picking one of Rushhdie’s children’s folk tale books as an entre to his writing.
The Palace of Illusions (by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni; narrated by Sneha Mathan) – audio
The Twentieth Wife (by Indu Sundaresan; narrated by Sneha Mathan) – audio
Heat and Dust (by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala) – 1975 Man Booker winner

The Ice Harvest

The Ice Harvest
By Scott Phillips
Narrated by Grover Gardner
Ⓟ 2005, Blackstone Audio
4.50 recorded hours
Blackstone Audio, Inc.
NOIR

The Ice Harvest
Based on the Novel by Scott Philips
Directed by Harold Ramis
Starring John Cusack, Billy Bob Thornton, Oliver Platt, Connie Nielsen, Randy Quaid and Mike Starr
1.50 hours running time
Focus Features; available at iTunes

Christmas Noir is all about the space between the holiday lights and in that negative space is where The Ice Harvest takes place. At Christmas-time, one’s attention is usually drawn to the lights that trim the house, the glittering star atop the tree, the Light of the World whose birthday we ostensibly celebrate. But Christmas Noir takes a look underneath, at the clogged gutters, the light in the strand that is out and, the giant sagging inflatable snow globe sitting on the front lawn. In The Ice Harvest, it is no accident that the writer details the darkened letters in the strip club’s neon sign, the blood stained snow in the parking lot or, in the movie, rain desecrating the Christ child’s body in the town’s Nativity display.

The Ice Harvest is about Charlie Arglist, a lawyer of dubious morals and ethics who works for a local crime syndicate out of a Kansas city. His plans for this particular Christmas Eve are to clean out his boss’ cash reserves and leave town. We follow Charlie as he scurries from strip club to strip club, bars and spartanly furnished homes as he attempts to tie up loose ends and put his past behind him.

Both the book and the movie unapologetically embrace the absurdity that is the (flawed) human. The comic aspects of the story and its characters rise very close to the surface in any given situation, providing a way for the audience to make some of the scenes more psychologically bearable. But while the book’s style hews closer to the grim and grisly, the movie plays more to the comic aspect and can be justifiably accused of pulling its punches when it comes to the darker moments of the story, especially at the end. It’s shame really, because in deciding to produce a dark comedy instead of a modern day noir movie, the film did not seem to gain anything. It certainly did not go on to be a blockbuster and its status as a dark comedy is dubious at best. That said, it’s worth watching for the performances of John Cusak (Charlie Arglist,) Billy Bob Thornton (Vic Cavanaugh, Charlie’s partner-in-crime,) Randy Quaid (Charlie’s boss,) and Oliver Platt (Charlie’s brother-in-law.) Connie Nielson as Renata, the strip club manager and love interest was okay. She was certainly sexy, just not exotic enough. And maybe that’s the best description of the film as a whole.

Other Stuff: I picked this title as the final audiobook in the Sounds Like a Mystery Holiday Challenge wherein listeners pick four titles, preferably mysteries or thrillers, each featuring a holiday. How I picked this title was that I went to the Blackstone Audio web site, typed “Christmas mystery” in the search box and chose the first hit that was either a stand-alone or a first-in-series. I then went over to the warehouse and borrowed a library edition of the audiobook. I did NOT review the audiobook per se due to a conflict of interest (I have a personal relationship with the narrator.)  I rented … this past week (from iTunes) to watch after I had listened to the audiobook.

Speak of the Devil

Speak of the Devil

by Richard Hawke
narrated by Paul Michael
11.00 hours
Books on Tape, Inc.
Available at audible.com
I’m participating in two mini-challenges sponsored by the Yahoo! group Sounds Like a Mystery: the State Challenge wherein listeners choose four books set in New York state and, the Holiday Challenge wherein listeners pick four books, each featuring a holiday. Imagine how pleased I was to find a book that qualified for both challenges! Especially at the end of the year when I’m trying to finish my current challenges, finding a title that will double up is very helpful:- )
SPEAK OF THE DEVIL is set in New York City and the action starts on Thanksgiving Day during a shootout at the big parade. The story then careens into a first-person (private investigator Fritz Malone) narrative filled with ludicrous characters underscored by risible characterizations on behalf of the narrator and, a plot that is only equaled in its incredibility as it is in the number of implausible twists. I had started to listen to this audiobook as a serious modern-day thriller, but was actually confused as to the intent of both the writer and the narrator fairly quickly. There are echoes of gumshoe detective novels in this story which takes place in a post-911 NYC. I wondered if both or either of them, the author and the narrator, were intentionally bringing those echoes into play either in a loving pastiche or as a cheap gimmick.
The story, about a terrorist who targets New York City, is filled with corrupt policemen, cardboard cut-out politicians, nuns, The Nightmare (a villain with an arch-nemesis name!) and other assorted characters all drawn with near-hyperbolic zeal. The narrator then matches the author’s zeal by showcasing each character as a caricature. Paul Michael, in an eyebrow-raising choice of interpretation, actually has the police commissioner speak with a heavy Irish brogue! Well, I will say that in showing off his character/accent work, Paul Michael does make every character distinct. There is never any doubt as to who is speaking at any given time :-/
The story itself is like a bumper car ride at an amusement park. There is no sense of shape or drive to the story and again the narrator does very little to help the text along. Equal weight is given to describing a garbage truck as describing the moment when our hero has an epiphany regarding who is behind the terrorist acts. As such, it’s difficult to determine what is noteworthy and what is merely background noise. The plot twists are best described as diagenetic run-ins of such far-fetched credibility that they only lacked paranormal features to make them even more fantastical. I’m not so sure that they changed the direction of the plot as much as they obscured the story line, on the given that a story line was actually outlined in the first place.

The listener is treated to a laundry list of the elements of writing style; but the author did not integrate these elements without self-consciousness or polish. All the ingredients for a thriller were there: descriptive passages that touched on all the five senses, action lines and scenes that covered the journalistic Who-What-Where-When-Why-and-How premise, interior dialogue for that idea of character depth, witty retorts, action and passive scenes….; but the overall awkwardness of the construction left the listener removed from the story. The writing was not powerful enough to draw the listener into the time and place sensually or experientially.