More Pickups

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My daughter has outgrown dolls. My wife, however, has grown into them. She learned to sew probably 15 years ago. She used to make herself various outfits, but once my daughter was born she began exclusively making her dresses. But my daughter no longer likes dresses (she prefers black pants and hoodies now) and so my wife has started making clothes for the dolls. She’s really gotten into it and even has an Instagram account for it (and she would be thrilled with more followers if you are into that sort of thing) She does a great job, even if I find the whole grownups play with dolls thing a little bit strange.

Anyway, there is a little toy shop that she likes to go to for bargains on Barbies and accessories. She wanted to go today and we made a family outing of it. They have other collectibles and other random stuff. I found a copy of Pitch Black and Fargo Season 2. Pitch Black is a surprisingly good little sci-fi/horror film that briefly made me think Vin Diesel was a good actor. Fargo is a terrific television show based on the wonderful Coen Brothers movie of the same name. Or at least the first two seasons are excellent, I still haven’t seen past that.

Afterward, we dropped by a Goodwill and I picked up The Black Box and The Running Man. I recently watched Bosch, the TV series, and quite liked it so I’ve been reading the Michael Connely books the series was based on. I’ve only read a couple of them but I’ve enjoyed what I’ve read. I’ve only been into Stephe King for a few years now but I am steadily working my way through them and I always buy the ones I don’t have at any used store we visit.

Spa is a comic book that I’ll be reviewing soon. It is utterly bizarre and it doesn’t make much logical sense, but the artwork is really interesting (and bizarre and horrifying).

Have you all picked up anything interesting lately?

Heat 2 by Michael Mann & Meg Gardiner

heat 2

Heat, the Michael Mann film from 1995 is one of my favorite movies. It stars Robert DeNiro as a master criminal who heads a crew of high-end professional thieves (including Val Kilmer, Tom Sizemore, and Danny Trejo) and Al Pacino as the highly-skilled detective out to catch them. It would be a great movie if it was just a cat-and-mouse game between those two forces, but it is so much more.

At its heart, it is really a character study of these two characters who are both very similar though on opposite sides of the law. Both men are highly intelligent, great at their jobs, and extremely dedicated. The DeNiro character swears off all attachments because he says he needs to be able to flee without a second thought, he has to be able to leave everything behind. Pacino’s detective is married, but it is falling apart (and this isn’t the first time that’s happened) because he can’t ever leave the job at the office. Kilmer plays a man kind of in the middle of these two. He is smart and very good, but he’s got a girl and he’s dedicated to her. He’ll get the job done, but he’ll never leave her.

It is a long movie and one that takes its time. It allows the audience to really soak up these characters and live in this world. It is a film I like more and more each time I watch it and one I always enjoy spending time with.

So, I was excited when I learned that Michael Mann (with help from Meg Gardiner) had written a sequel to Heat. As a novel. Which is weird, right? Mann has never written a novel before, and Heat is a movie. Except Mann often talks about how when he writes a movie script he writes long character descriptions giving them background stories and filling in their characters. Apparently, he writes hundreds of pages of background stories that never make it to the actual script. Heat was actually a remake of an earlier film of Mann’s called L.A. Takedown, which was originally intended as a TV pilot but when it wasn’t picked up he converted that into a television movie. What I’m saying is Mann knows and loves these characters so it makes a certain amount of sense that he’d want to revisit them in this format.

Heat 2 is really good, even if it is a little convoluted and relies a little too heavily on coincidence. It follows two timelines that eventually converge. The first follows directly after the events of the film. Chris (that’s the Val Kilmer character) has escaped with his life (barely) and is on the run. He makes it to Paraguay where he begins working for a crime syndicate.

The second timeline follows Vincent (the Al Pacino character) several years prior to the events of the movie as he chases a violent gang of home invaders in Chicago. Neil (the DeNiro character) and Chris and their cohorts are also in Chicago at the same time, involved in an unrelated crime.

The stories converge in interesting ways. At least to me. Your mileage may vary.

Spoilers for the movie: at the end of the film Neil is dead and so he can’t factor into the events of the book that unfold after that moment. It is clear from the film that Neil and Vincent had never met before. In this book, the two characters circle each other without really knowing it and the various coincidences and events that connect them do feel a little contrived and may be a little too much for some readers.

Personally, I didn’t mind. Mann and Gardiner do a great job of bringing us back into this world. The voice of the characters line up so well with the actor’s performances in the film that I do wonder how it would come across to someone who hasn’t watched the movie.

I highly recommend watching the movie then reading the book. Mann has already said he’s interested in adapting the book into a movie or possibly a TV series. I’d vote for a series as there is so much crammed into these pages it would be difficult to fit it all into a movie, even a long one. It will be fascinating to see who they get to play these characters as the original actors are far too old for it now.

Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows And Me

My first memory of anything Harry Potter was during my first couple of weeks working for the credit card company I used to work for. I walked into cube-land and my trainer was propped up in his little space reading one of the Potter books. He sort of sheepishly smiled at me, admitted he was reading a “kids” book, but added that it was really easy to read, and he needed something breezy to fill his time at work.

This was a call center, you understand, and there was always some dead time while the dialer dialed looking for a real, live person to talk to.

I obviously knew about Harry Potter then because I understood what book he was reading, and the reasons he was a little sheepish about it. It is funny now to think any adult might be embarrassed about reading a Potter book, as it seems all of us have now read most of the series. (Editor’s Note: This post was written in 2007, long before J.K. Rowling espoused her controversial opinions on Trans Women.)

A year or two or three later I went to a midnight release party at Borders for one of the books. I’m guessing it was Prisoner of Azkaban, but it might have been the fourth one as my memory and knowledge of release dates is fuzzy. I still had not read any of the books, and only went because some friends had invited me, and it seemed like it might be fun.

It was. It was hugely crowded in the middle of the night and everyone sort of lingered around feeling the great amount of buzz in the room. There were kids dressed up as Harry and adults dressed up as Dumbledore. It all seemed strange and weird and fun.

Through a few more years the Harry Potter mania grew and I kept thinking I should read them, but my interest wasn’t incredibly high over the whole deal. I did borrow the first movie from a friend and set out to watch it, but my wife told me we had to read the books first. The movie was returned and I bought the first five books for Christmas.

There they sat for many a month while I read other things and my wife studied. Eventually, I rented the movie and said we were going to watch it regardless of never cracking the book.

I wasn’t really impressed. I liked the concept of the story, and most of the actors were pretty good, but the direction was kind of plodding and the effects were lousy. The troll in the bathroom was some of the worst CGI I had ever seen.

Still, it made me want to read the books, and I eventually started on Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. This was sometime around Halloween, 2006. I zipped through the first book and started the second. Halfway through we rented the second film and it was much improved, but still a little plodding. I’ve always been one who enjoys reading a book after watching the movie version. That’s the only way I don’t mind knowing the ending, and I like the visual aspect the movie gives me in the book. But after that, I completed the book before watching the movie.

My wife also began reading the books and eventually, she caught up with me. We then had many an argument over whose turn it was to read.

The books got better, and Rowling definitely honed her craft with each page. Yet I’d never say she was a great writer, and I don’t expect that the Potter books will find themselves in the annals of great literature in the years to come.

As I read more of the series, I developed a mantra – Rowling needs an editor. Seriously, did any of the books need to be that long? 800 pages for a kid’s book? There were so many things that could have been left out completely or paired down a great deal. I’m thinking specifically about all the long conversations with Dumbledore, and all of the flashbacks via the Pensieve. Sure, I like having some good back story on Voldemort, but I’m not at all sure that we needed neither quite that much information nor the extra long chapters on nothing but…

Still, I really enjoyed the books. Rowling does a great job of making me care for her characters – and not just the main three, but Hagrid and Dumbledore, and Neville and even Snape. The great thing about a seven-part series is she is allowed the time to really develop those characters and create a larger story that kept me interested.

Like so many others, I eagerly awaited the arrival of the final book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. I pondered how it would all end, and even developed several theories. Having now finished the book I can’t say that I am disappointed, but I can’t say that I esteem Rowling any more highly than I already did either.

It turns out most of my predictions were correct. Spoilers follow.

Snape was a good guy. I always figured he would wind up being one of the good ones due to how much time was spent making him the bad guy. He was Harry’s foible for so long, and yet Dumbledore liked him and he never did anything incredibly nasty (save for killing Dumbledore) that I just KNEW he’d wind up good.

Yet I couldn’t help but be a little annoyed that we had to find out he was good through the Pensieve. Finding out after he gets killed was kind of anti-climactic. I would have much preferred him to play a bigger role in the final battle, maybe saving Harry from one of Voldemort’s blasts or something.

Harry didn’t die. I was never really against Harry dying if the story played out that way, but unlike others, I always figured Rowling wouldn’t allow the character to be killed off. If this wasn’t pop fiction I could see it, but as it is, I always thought he would live. I liked how Harry’s fake death actually killed the Horcrux inside him and that he was willing to die for his friends, and thus this made him worthy of living, but a part of me just thinks this was a foul trick on the author’s part.

Dumbledore is really dead. I would have bet money that he would have found a way to come back to life like Gandalf in Lord of the Rings, or his very own phoenix, but alas I was wrong. I only take off half points though, as in the chapter he appeared in, he very much appeared alive (instead of as a ghost) and basically played the role he always does in explaining parts that Harry didn’t understand.

Overall I liked the book and am happy with its conclusion. I suspect I will read the books to my kids, though I don’t think that Harry Potter will live on as a classic piece of literature.

The African Queen by CS Forester

the african queen book

See, I told you I would still write reviews. I’m just eliminating the stress that I had built into them.

The fact that it took me over 2 months to read the mere 136 pages that make up CS Forester’s The African Queen tells a great deal about the quality of the writing. Classic film buffs will note that this is no fault of the story, for it made a brilliant motion picture starring the likes of Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn. The problem, then, lies in the telling.

In Creative Writing 101 writers learn the importance of showing and not telling. Forester must have been sick that day for he spends his entire novel telling the reader exactly how the characters feel, think, and are. He never allows his character’s actions or words to give the reader an emotional response, he spends his pages telling us how to feel.

There is no chance to gain insight into a character through what they do, for Forester is much too busy telling all the pertinent details. There is no subtlety in the text. If we don’t get something the first time, rest assured, he will repeat himself two or three times.

What will keep the reader reading is the power of the story itself. For many years Rose has been assisting her missionary brother in the heart of the African Jungle. When he dies suddenly she enlists Charlie, a gin-swigging rough and tumble riverboat captain, to ship her back to civilization. Along the way they must traverse deadly rapids, disease-infected hoards of mosquitoes, German soldiers, and a river that is not meant for the sturdiest of boats, never mind the old, rickety African Queen.

Forester fills his tale with plenty of chills and spills. There is enough action to keep the pages turning, and an old-fashioned romance to keep the lovers interested. Truth be told, there is almost too much action. In nearly every paragraph, some new obstacle presents itself that must be overcome. Each obstacle is overcome, of course, and that a bit too quickly. Though the obstacles are fretted over and stressed about, Charlie and Rose seem to overcome them within a few sentences; only to find another one waiting around the corner. It would have served the novel better to have had fewer problems, and more struggle to overcome them.

Forester has a keen eye for mechanical detail. He gives good exposition over the mechanics of making an old steamer like the African Queen keep going. He paints a detailed picture of the African landscape, as seen from a riverboat. The physical details of the boat and its surroundings are all apt, and true. It is the abilities of humans that bring an air of falseness.

Rose, though having never piloted a boat before, in a very short time somehow manages to master the intricacies of sailing a difficult steamer through dangerous rapids. Likewise, she sheds her moral inhibitions like a heavy coat in the sultry African climate. We are led to believe that an innocent, sheltered missionary can suddenly give up all of her beliefs and morals to a dirty, foul-mouthed, drunk all in a matter of days.

Ultimately I would have been better off having just watched the movie again and left the novel on the bookshelf. The movie retains all of the excitement and grandeur of the story and elevates the storytelling to the level of a classic. The book seems flat in comparison.

American Tabloid by James Ellroy

american tabloid cover

Like the supermarket rags in the title, this James Elroy novel is loaded with grandiose stories, half-truths, and more conspiracy theories than an Oliver Stone wet dream. It rewrites history in a manner akin to the Lone Gunmen in the X-Files and is a thoroughly enjoyable experience.

It is filled with wall-to-wall celebrities. There are politicians (John F.and Robert Kenney, J Edgar Hoover), flashy millionaires (Howard Hughes), and mobsters galore (Santo Traficante, Jack Ruby, etc). It retells the rise to power of JFK through a myriad of conspiracies, ending with the ultimate conspiracy, the assassination of JFK.

It is filled with bits of history and fact, but also unproven conspiracies and outright fabrications. I am not a historian, so my knowledge of the time period, while pretty good, is by no means complete. I suspect this is true for the majority of Americans. None of us know exactly what happened the day JFK was assassinated. There are a lot of theories floating around, and they all sort of blend together after a while. Elroy uses this to his advantage.

For example, it is generally accepted that John F Kennedy had affairs. During the Clinton scandals, numerous journalists touted this as absolute truth, though I’ve never once seen any hard data confirming the information. Before anyone sends in the hard data, understand that whether or not JFK did have affairs is beyond the point. As a culture we believe it, it is accepted as fact. There are many more rumors and flat-out lies, that as a culture we know, that we have heard for the umpteenth time, that it feels like the truth. Elroy writes all of these things as hard truths and then kicks them up several notches. Here, JFK not only has a few casual affairs but is an oversexed hound dog. He employs multiple persons to set him up with one-night stands at every campaign stop, for every night of the week.

Likewise, such fascinating conspiracies of the American group mind such as the CIA/Mob collaboration to assassinate Fidel Castro, and the CIA sanctioning of heroin sales to support this collaboration,. Or Joe Kennedy’s mob ties, and Jack Ruby’s collaboration with the JFK conspiracy, are all made concrete facts and punctuated with exclamation marks, ad infinitum.

There aren’t any good guys in this novel. Anybody who starts out with anything close to a normal set of morals has completely lost them by the story’s end. Though filled with real people, it centers around three completely fictional characters. Kemper Boyd carries out a tangled web of undercover work for the FBI, CIA, the Kennedy clan, and the mob. Pete Bondurant is an ex-cop who plays bodyguard for Howard Hughes and then Jimmy Hoffa and has a penchant for bloody violence. Ward Little is an FBI agent hungry for anti-mob activity, who through a series of mistakes eventually begins working directly for them.

Each character is destroyed, destroyed again, and sometimes built up a little before they are yet again destroyed. Nobody walks away clean, or undamaged. The plot gets a little thick and there were moments where I wish it had been supplied with a map and a compass. The subplots are so plentiful and intertwined it’s sometimes difficult to tell where you are at within the myriad of webs. Elroy’s style doesn’t help in this matter, for it is about as hard-boiled as a writer can be. I don’t think there is a paragraph longer than five sentences, and there are a great many consisting of only one line. Many critics have found this immensely annoying and find the novel difficult to read because of it. I had no problem with it. It made the novel faster to read, and made it seem much lighter than it actually is. Although I must say that at the halfway point through the sequel, it has grown quite tiresome.

To supply some of the details left out in the brevity of his prose, Elroy supplies any number of fake documents including tabloid cutouts, top secret documents, and verbatim transcripts of phone conversations.

It is a fast-paced, exciting, often violent book. It is pulp fiction with literary sensibilities. It doesn’t work particularly well as revisionist history, but for fans of hard-boiled crime stories, or those who can’t get enough conspiracy it is a thoroughly enjoyable read.

Maximum Bob by Elmore Leonard

maximum bob

Reading an Elmore Leonard novel is a lot like watching a good, not great movie. There is a lot of style, dialogue that demands to be spoken out loud, and interesting and twisting plots, with great ease in being read. Maybe that’s why so many of his books are made into movies. They read like screenplays.

Maximum Bob was actually made into a television show starring Beau Bridges, but it didn’t last past a season.

What we get here is a breezy, fun novel about Bob Gibbs, a conservative, hard-nosed judge nick-named “Maximum Bob” for his tendency to deal out the full force of the law. Bob begins to fancy a no-nonsense probation officer, Nancy Baker, who is busy tangling with a couple of low-life losers. Things get complicated when a giant alligator shows up on Bob’s front porch scaring his former mermaid-turned-new-age-psychic wife into leaving him for good. Add into the mix Dale Crowe Junior, one of the aforementioned losers, who is plotting to flee from an oncoming prison sentence, and Owen, Dale’s uncle, and recently released ex-convict. The outcome is a wild ride, which is enjoyable to read, but without a lot of depth or staying power.

Leonard is a good craftsman. He has a real knack for creating interesting plots. He is often praised for his dialogue, but I can’t say that I was too impressed with it here. It has that screenplay feel to it, and would probably sound a lot better coming out of an actor’s mouth, than lying flat on the written page. Actually, that’s a good idea. Next time I read a Leonard novel I’ll act out all the parts.

I read the novel in a couple of days while basking in the sun at the local park. It was a good novel for that purpose. It was easy to pick back up after being distracted by the Frisbee players, and the ball-chasing dog, without having to think about what I had just read. It was entertaining enough to get me occupied while loafing for several hours as well. It is also forgettable enough that once I’ve written this review I’ll pretty much never think about it again. Well, at least until I browse the L-N shelf at the library.

Book Review: The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

In my determination to read all of the classic detective fiction I recently picked up Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Hound of the Baskervilles. I have a collection of Sherlock Holmes short stories, but those are a little too simplified for my tastes. They consist of a setup for the mystery and then a detailed description of Holmes using his near supernatural ability of observation to determine the culprit. Most of these never develop any real sense of mystery because Holmes is too brilliant for the readers good. We are briefly marveled by his powers of observation and deduction, to the point that we begin trying to concentrate our own powers to the mundane tasks of our lives. Upon some contemplation, though, it is easy to realize that paying attention to details will not bring us the answers the super detective seems to collect from the air at will. There are too many possibilities as to why our neighbor has a bit of mud on his pants cuffs to be able to surmise the reason out of sheer reasoning.

This being said, I was looking forward to reading a longer length novel about this super sleuth. With more pages, surely Doyle would prepare a better mystery for his hero to unravel. Still with a mere 174 pages, Doyle managed to create a more well rounded story and develop enough mystery to satisfy my tastes.

The story revolves around Henry Baskerville and his inherited homestead amongst the moors of England. It seems his family has been haunted by a demon hound for generations. The patriarchs of the family have befallen many a beastly end in this home. Not one for superstition, Henry moves to the homestead from America after he inherited the land when the previous owner, Sir Charles Baskerville, fell dead of fright. After a series of threats and strange circumstances, Dr. Watson travels to the Baskerville home to investigate. Holmes has announced himself too busy in London to be able to make the trip himself.

This point was a brilliant maneuver by Doyle. Allowing the more human Dr. Watson to do much of the investigation himself allows the mystery time to develop rather than be solved immediately by Holmes. Dr. Watson investigates the few residence around Baskerville Hall and finds them all to be rather suspicious in their own way. Suspense is built by the appearance of an escaped convict loose in the area, and the appearance of a mysterious stranger roaming the moors.

When Holmes does appear back on the scene, Doyle allows action to take the place of Holmes usual verbal pomposity. Though, we are told numerous times that this is a most interesting and difficult case by the detective. As if the reader is too dumb to appreciate the difficulties of the case, we need to be reminded by Holmes over and over again. Once the case is solved, the novel is concluded with a meeting between Holmes and Dr. Watson months after the case had occurred. Here Holmes once again must amaze us with his brilliant deductive powers. Once again, a mystery novel must tie up loose ends with a lot of verbiage.

The Hound of the Baskervilles was a light, enjoyable read. It is easy to see why Sherlock Holmes mysteries were so popular. The are easy to read, quickly paced, and pack enough muscle to keep the page turned. Holmes penetrating powers of observation and deduction are fascinating. Like a magic trick, they entrance the reader and make us feel that with a little help and a lot of practice, we could also perform such feats. As serious literature, the book fails to be scrutinized. I will read more of the Holmes mysteries, and these books will hold a place on my book case, but they will have to hold a secondary shelf to the true masters of the genre.

The Phantom of the Opera By Gaston Leroux

phantom of the opera book cover

I’ve never seen a movie version of Phantom (not the classic, silent Lon Chaney version, and certainly not the new Joel “I should repent of my cinematic sins” Schumacher version). Nor have I seen any stage version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical, or listened to music from that particular show. What I knew about the material is what everyone knows, what pop culture understands from the spoofs and the chattering fans in the back. I’ve never really been that interested either. What made me pick up the book then? I’m not really sure. Maybe it was the heavy amount of publicity it was getting from the new movie. Maybe it was my wife’s love of the musical, and a faint remembrance of her sending me a homemade card with a lyric from it. Or maybe it was the only halfway interesting book in English the library had.

Either way, I’m glad I picked it up. In a peculiar way, it is a continuation of my fascination with detective fiction. No, this is not Phillip Marlowe or Hercule Poirot chasing down some notorious killer. Gaston Leroux has created a mystery involving a ghost and murderer without the help of private detectives or Scotland Yard. Much of the words included in the book are determined to unmask this phantom, through a series of clues and hints. It is here we find kinship with the likes of Agatha Christie.

I’ll not explain much of the plot, for everyone knows it for the most part (and if you don’t just who are you?) It is a story set in the Paris Opera, a gigantic, intricate building with layer upon layer of subterranean levels masked in noirish, dark shadows. It involves a ghost, or phantom if you will, that lives in the bowels of the opera and makes frequent, and peculiar requests (such as a monthly salary and nightly tickets to the Opera in one of the best seats)to the new management. The old management, it seems, was all too happy to give in to the requests, but the new management is not so sure. Thus begins a series of punishments. There is also a love triangle involving the ghost, an accomplished singer of the opera, Christine Daae, and her childhood friend, Raoul.

Though I am learning the French language, my skill level is nowhere near the point where I have tried to tackle reading a novel in that language. So it is an English translation that I read. What I am learning in my French courses, though, is that translation is often a very difficult thing to do. Though many words literally translate well, often subtler meanings behind the words do not come through in a translation. Also, often words have no exact translation so approximations must be made. The story may come out the same, but the poetry is left behind. Maybe someday I’ll be able to read The Phantom of the Opera in its original language, but for now, I must be satisfied with this translation.

The first half of the novel acts exclusively like a mystery. There are rumors floating around the Opera of a ghost that haunts the lower levels of the building. Random notes appear to the new managers, threatening horror if the ghost’s demands are not met. There are ones who claim to have seen the ghost, others who claim to know him well, or as well as one can know a ghost. It is written from an outsider’s perspective. Our point of view is that of an investigator, someone interested in finding the truth about the ghost and events that happened during this time period. Leroux does a marvelous job making this piece of fiction look like history. After reading I even spent some time researching the events described to see if there was any truth to the story.

It is in the second half of the story that things change. We are introduced properly to the ghost and his madness. From this point, the story shifts from a mystery to a thriller. We know who the phantom is, but we are unsure of what he is going to do. Raoul and Christine are mad to leave the opera and be wed, but the ghost intercedes to create a great deal of suspense. As separate halves I found them both to be exhilarating, and a great read. But considered as a whole they leave a lot of questions. As with any good mystery, Phantom of the Opera begins with a lot of questions. The narrative spends a great deal of time trying to determine what the ghost is, whether it is flesh and blood or a spirit. Whether the events happening are caused by the supernatural, or are just tricks and games. As mentioned, the ghost makes many requests for service, it acts in peculiar ways to add to the mystery. Yet, when the nature of the ghost is revealed, these things go unanswered. The great mystery is revealed, but much of what was mysterious is never explained. This is a small quibble because the story moves along with such gusto it leaves little time to be perplexed.

Overall, Phantom of the Opera is a fast, entertaining read. There is much to enjoy and think over. It is a well-written, well-plotted, and well-done piece of fiction. It is not a great piece of literature, but this should not keep any fan of the written word from picking up and enjoying this novel.

How to Be Good by Nick Hornby

how to be good nick hornsby

How to Be Good is the third book by Nick Hornby that I have read. The other two, High Fidelity and 31 Songs were insightful, well written, and hilarious. Both, happen to also be about music. 31 Songs is a collection of essays about, well, 31 songs. High Fidelity uses the protagonist’s obsession with pop music to discuss his relationships with women. I have not read the book, but the movie version of About a Boy also contains a similar musical theme. Music, is obviously, something very dear to the heart of the writer. With How to Be Good, Hornby seems to be making a real attempt to steer clear of this area. In fact, the narrator/main character, Katie Carr, mentions that her life is completely devoid of music, books, and movies. Unfortunately, her life and this book are almost completely devoid of what makes Nick Hornby’s novels so good.

In choosing to leave his normal type of fiction, Hornby chose to write this novel in the first person from the perspective of a middle-aged, middle-class, female doctor. Whereas he can write articulately, with great perspective, about a middle-aged male obsessed with music, Hornby has no true understanding of how a woman doctor might feel. This character comes off sounding whiny, self-important, rattlebrained, and false. The plot comes off so implausible I spent most of the novel groaning for help.

Katie Carr tries to live a good life. She became a doctor to help people, she tries to love her husband, and raise her two children right. Yet by the books beginning her life is thoroughly messed up. Problems with her husband David, the self-professed “Angriest man in Holloway” have been going on for years, and her she is no longer sure of how she feels about her own children. In fact, she is ready for a divorce and a new life. However, before she is granted this, her husband, healed by some mystical healer changes things around. Instead of the sarcastic, angry man he has always been, suddenly he is a kind, generous, make the world better kind of guy. The crux of the story is Katie trying to come to terms with this change. Having a hateful husband was horrible, but she is not sure having a super husband is much better. What follows is a series of mildly amusing, if highly suspect, adventures, and a great deal of preaching.

There are few scatterings of great writing. My favorite moments are when we get small snippets of the old David. His anger is in the form of sarcasm and we get summaries of articles he wrote for a paper, which are quite hilarious. When Hornby is on, he is able to bring out humor and poignancy in any scene. Here, we gleam a few moments of this brilliance before he bogs us back down into his sermon.

Knowing a little biography of the author, and his own tumultuous marriage, I can’t help but think this is his way of sorting things out. Perhaps he is even trying to see things from his wife’s perspective. There is a lot of cutthroat bickering between spouses here, and one wonders if some of it isn’t autobiographical.

Elsewhere, Hornby has been able to give us a glimpse of how to be good, without overtly showing us. In other novels, he gives us characters who have flaws but are able to sort something out for themselves while remaining true to their character. Here the story seems sacrificed in order to tell the audience how to live. Let’s hope he returns to his earlier form by showing us, and not preaching.

Book Review: Serenade by James M Cain

serenade book cover

James M. Cain wrote in the first person, from the criminal’s perspective. His storytellers are not usually hardened criminals, yet through circumstances commit the most atrocious of crimes. He writes about downtrodden, out-of-luck schmucks, who fall for the wrong kind of girl. Interestingly, it is usually his women who are tough, manipulative, and full of lust for the crime. The men tend to be suckered in by their seductive charms.

Serenade centers around a down-and-out opera singer, John Howard Sharp. He is so down on his luck that he’s been singing in a small club in Mexico, before, even they, kick him out. His luck seems to change when he meets a cheap whore, whom he falls with. His love for her causes his once faltering voice, to come back. What follows is a transcontinental series of adventures cataloging John’s skyrocketing rise in both movies and the New York opera, and his subsequent fall.

There is plenty to like about Serenade. Cain’s terse, cynical prose moves across the page like a song. He accurately portrays John’s love and hatred for his lover. There are plenty of nice character moments. Moments that give just the right details that give meaning to ordinary events. Much of the “action” of the story revolves around the little moments of life: sitting in a room talking to friends, stroking the hair of a girl, and listening to music. Cain understands that much of life is filled with these types of moments and that great changes and meaning can be found in them.

Before Cain became a writer, he was trained as a singer. In part, this novel seems to be an attempt for him to allow his musical knowledge and training to come to some use. Throughout the book, John converses about or describes internally the music he likes and hates, musicians, and his own singing. Some of this is vitally important to the story, for he is a professional singer, and the plot concerns his successes as such. Yet it is so infused with information that it, at times, feels more like a trade magazine than a proper story. At only 136 pages, it is superfluous to fill so many with discussions on Puccini and Mozart.

There is a revealing moment about John’s character in the last third of the book. Even while reading this in 2005 it seemed shocking. Yet it is treated with aplomb, handled with an expert hand. The feelings that arise out of the character seem true if not entirely kind. It is also interesting to see how that particular issue was handled at that time.

Overall, Serenade is an interesting read. It is well written and the characters are well drawn. However, if you have never read anything by James M. Cain, I would recommend picking up The Postman Always Rings Twice and then Double Indemnity before I began reading this.