Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Doctor No, by Ian Fleming

(pb; 1958: sixth book in the original 007/James Bond series)

From the back cover:

“Doctor No, a sinister recluse with mechanical pincers for hands and sadistic fascination with pain, holds James Bond firm in his steely grasp. Bond and Honey Rider, his beautiful and vulnerable Girl Friday, have been captured trespassing on Doctor No’s secluded Caribbean island. Intent on protecting his clandestine operations from the British secret service, Doctor No sees an opportunity to dispose of an enemy and further his diabolical research. Soon, Bond and Rider are fighting for their lives in a murderous of Doctor No’s choosing...”

Review:

When Strangways (an agent of her Majesty’s Secret Service, seen in Live and Let Die) and his female assistant (Mary Trueblood) disappear, Bond returns to Jamaica to investigate why. It’s been three months since the events of From Russia with Love, and this is meant to be a routine investigation, as Strangways is known to be a womanizer.

Bond quickly realizes that mission is far from routine. A mysterious, rarely-seen man named Doctor No owns Crab Key, a nearby island where several people have disappeared; even Quarrel, a Jamaican boatman and Bond ally who also appeared in Live and Let Die, is terrified at the thought of going there.

Not only that, somebody – Doctor No? – has made two low-key attempts on Bond’s life since his arrival in Jamaica, and Bond is being shadowed by Chigro (Chinese-Negro) spies, who may or may not work for Doctor No.

With Quarrel, Bond goes to Crab Key, encounters Honeychile Rider, and that’s when the trouble really starts.

Like the five preceding books in the Bond series, Doctor No is exciting, fast-paced and hard to put down. Doctor No is the perfect megalomaniacal villain, whose cold charm masks murderous, vengeful intentions.

Honeychile Rider isn’t book-smart like many of Bond’s previous women, as she’s lived in the jungle all of her life, but she is practical and courageous – the perfect foil for Bond, given the nature of this adventure.

Another winning entry in the Bond series, followed by Goldfinger.


Doctor No, the first James Bond film, was released stateside on May 8, 1963.

Sean Connery played James Bond. Ursula Andress played Honeychile "Honey" Rider. Joseph Wiseman played Doctor Julius No. Jack Lord played Felix Leiter (whose character is not in the book version). John Kitzmiller played Quarrel.

Terence Young directed the film, from a script by Richard Maibaum, Johanna Harwood and Berkely Mather.

Shoot the Women First, by Eileen MacDonald

(hb; 1991: non-fiction)

From the inside flap:

“ ‘Shoot the women first’ is the advice given to police teams specializing in terrorist incidents. Why? Because women are more ruthless than men? To overcome an instinctive hesitation one might feel when faced with shooting a woman? Because women are intrinsically more dangerous than men?

“Intrigued by these questions, journalist Eileen MacDonald sought and obtained a series of interviews with women around the world from organizations committed to violence. Here, in their own words, are the reflections, rage, and regrets of these women: Kim Hyon Hui, who planted the bomb that destroyed Korean Air Flight 858 and all those on board; Leila Khaled, the mother and Intifada activist who blew up a plane in Syria; and Inge Viett, once of the most notorious members of the German Red Army Faction, who escaped from prison by sawing through the bars of her cell.

“In Shoot the Women First, these and other women – including members of the Irish Republican Army, the Italian Red Brigades, and the Basque separatist movement – tell their remarkable stories. They describe their memories of acts of extreme violence. They speak of the strengths and weaknesses of their male counterparts. They talk of motherhood and murder, and of the feelings a woman must suppress when she pulls a trigger or detonates a bomb.

“Women involved in violence have always provoked both revulsion and fascination. They are interlopers in a world assumed to be exclusively male. This powerful, challenging book explodes many of the myths and assumptions about women and violence, and offers bold new insights into an age-old, but seldom discussed phenomenon.”

Review:

A straight-forward, fascinating study of female terrorists around the world, Shoot the Women First shows many of the common elements of the women interviewed, while exposing their cultural and personality-oriented differences.

Many of the things these women (largely) had in common: the women tied their rebel activities to the feminist struggle; they got involved in these rebel groups because they wanted to, not because of a male counterpart (father, brother, lover, etc.); most of them still had strong maternal instincts; they opined that they were stronger and more committed to their causes than their male counterparts, who didn’t handle pain (under torture) as well as the women; women were more hurt by verbal insults (“slut,” etc.) of the police and soldiers, than the actual physical violence.

Also, while a few expressed regrets about their past violence, most of them regarded it as one of the exciting periods of their lives.

Kim Hyon Hui seems to be the exception to many of the above facts. Brainwashed since she was in the cradle, this South Korean woman was taught that Kim Il Sung, then-leader of South Korea, was a divine being. Any rebellion, born of natural personality, was subjugated by the society-enforced, dogmatic rituals and dictates of the country she was raised in. So when they told her to bomb Korean Air Flight 858 in November 1987, she didn’t even think to question it, or the fact that she’d be killing anybody. (At least this is what she says. Her handlers backed her up on this.)

One minor nit: author MacDonald gives Leila Khaled too much space. Khaled is clearly building up her role in her particular “struggle” -- author MacDonald notes this, yet portions of Khaled's chapter are repetitive, and occasionally boring.

Despite that minor nit, this is a great, disturbing, landmark read – at least for this reader. Check it out.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Angels & Demons, by Dan Brown

(hb; 2000: first book in the Robert Langdon series)


From the inside cover:

“When world-renown Harvard symbiologist Robert Langdon is summoned to a Swiss research facility to analyze a mysterious symbol – seared into the chest of a murdered physicist – he discovers the evidence of the unimaginable: the resurgence of an ancient brotherhood known as the Illuminati... the most power underground organization to ever walk the earth. The Illuminati has now surfaced to carry out the final phase of its legendary vendetta against its most hated enemy – the Catholic Church.

“Langdon’s worst fears are confirmed on the eve of the Vatican’s holy conclave, when a messenger of the Illuminati announces they have hidden an unstoppable time bomb at the very heart of the Vatican City. With the countdown under way, Langdon jets to Rome to join forces with Vittoria Vetra, a beautiful and mysterious scientist, to assist the Vatican in a desperate bid for survival...”


Review:

Blend James Bond with some art history, religion and philosophy, and this is what a you get: a pot boiler that’s simultaneously dumb fun (imagine Michael Bay filming this) and a clever, often humorous historical fiction piece.

Langdon is more akin to Ian Fleming’s literary Bond than the cinematic version of Bond (i.e., he doesn’t sleep with every woman he meets), and is an intellectual with an awareness of pop culture. Vetra is interchangeable with some of the smarter “Bond girls” (Gala Brand from Moonraker comes to mind).

This visually-spectacular work is full of non-stop action and twists (most of them obvious – as are the bad guys), with little character development... no biggie, in a thrill vehicle like this.

Passages about art and religious history (providing improbable backstory) pop up often, giving a crazed legitimacy to the set-up. Some on-line reviewers bitched about these passages, but I found them more interesting than the actual story – until the end, when one prominent character devolves into speechifying.

Brown heaps on too many twists at the end, many of them hackneyed, almost ruining the novel. The ending comes straight out of a James Bond film (save one – On Her Majesty’s Secret Service).

Fun, dumb, and hard to put down, Angels & Demons is something to burn through at the beach, nothing more.

Followed by The Da Vinci Code.

#

The film version of Angels & Demons is scheduled for stateside release on May 15, 2009.

Tom Hanks plays Robert Langdon. Ewan McGregor plays Carlo Ventresca. Stellan Skarsgård plays Richter. Ayelet Zurer plays Vittoria Vetra. Armin Mueller-Stahl plays Straus.

Ron Howard is set to direct, from a script by David Koepp and Akiva Goldsman.

The Da Vinci Code, by Dan Brown

(pb; 2000: second book in the Robert Langdon series)

From the back cover:

“While in Paris, Harvard symbiologist Robert Langdon is awakened by a phone call in the dead of night. The elderly curator of the Louvre has been murdered inside the museum, his body covered in baffling symbols. As Langdon and gifted French cryptologist Sophie Neveu sort through the bizarre riddles, they are stunned to discover a trail of clues hidden in the works of Leonardo da Vinci – clues visible for all to see and yet ingeniously disguised by the painter.

“Even more startling, the late curator was involved in the Priory of Sion – a secret society whose members included Sir Isaac Newton, Victor Hugo, and da Vinci – and he guarded a breathtaking historical secret. Unless Langdon and Neveu can decipher the labyrinthine puzzle – while avoiding the faceless adversary who shadows their every move – the explosive, ancient truth will be lost forever.”

Review:

A year after the events of Angels & Demons, Langdon finds himself in the middle of another international conspiracy, one that incorporates everything from Mary Magdalene to Walt Disney. The set-up’s familiar, but author Langdon tweaks it in a refreshing way so that it doesn’t feel like a rehash of Angels & Demons. Most of what held true for the previous book holds true for Da Vinci, but this time around, author Brown has concocted a better tale: while there’s just as many twists in this as the previous book, they’re more effective.

The character of Sophie Neveu replaces Vittoria Vetra as Langdon’s (possible) love interest; in true Bond-style, Vetra is briefly mentioned in a couple of flashbacks (a la Tiffany Case, mentioned in Ian Fleming’s From Russia With Love), then forgotten.

The Da Vinci Code, like its predecessor, is a beach-read actioner that ably mixes low- and high-brow humor, though Da Vinci improves the formula.

Followed by The Lost Symbol, which is set for a September 15, 2009 publication date.



The film version of The Da Vinci Code is scheduled for stateside release on May 19, 2006.

Ron Howard is set to direct Da Vinci, from a script by Akiva Goldsman.

Tom Hanks plays Langdon. Audrey Tautou plays Neveu. Ian McKellen plays Sir Leigh Teabing. Jean Reno plays Bezu Fache. Paul Bettany plays Silas. Jürgen Prochnow plays Andre Vernet.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Bill the Galactic Hero, by Harry Harrison

(pb; 1965)

From the back cover:

“It was the highest honor to defend the Empire against the dreaded Chingers, an enemy race of seven-foot tall lizards.

“But Bill, a Technical Fertilizer Operator from a planet of farmers, wasn’t interested in honor – he was only interested in two things: his chosen career, and the shapely curves of Inga-Maria Calyphigia. Then a recruiting robot shanghaied him with knock-out drops, and he came to in deep space, aboard the Empire warship Christine Keeler. And from there, things got even worse...

“From his loss of a Helior floor plan (a major criminal offense) and his search for sanctuary in the department of garbage management in Helior’s underground, to his exile and final redemption, Bill’s tale is a perfect change of pace for anyone who likes the best in modern science fiction.”

Review:

Harrison, in his introduction to the novel, mentions that three things inspired it: Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, Voltaire’s Candide, and the author’s own experiences in the military (which he instantly hated).

That makes sense, because Harrison’s action-packed, hilarious and often bloody lark about Bill the reluctant hero reads like the bastard of Catch-22 and Candide. It’s an anti-war novel that made this reader laugh even as he winced.

Ironies and absurdities abound in Bill, as personified the characters who populate it. Three characters come to mind: there’s the schizophrenic, gentle chaplain who’s also the demanding laundry clerk (he “turns” in the blink of an eye); drill instructor Deathwish Drang, who alternates between brutality and kindness, while sporting two facial tusks (to terrify the new recruits); Fuse Tender First Class Tembo, soldier and religion-pushing member of the First Reformed Voodoo Church. Most scenes with these characters had me figuratively rolling with laughter.

As ridiculous and frenetic as this story is, there’s an element of real-world truth to it, and that kept this reader believing in the story; not only that, the subliminal horror that lurks beneath the humor ably foreshadows the unfunny (and downright chilling) finish, one that made me feel like I’d smashed into a brick wall at a hundred miles an hour.

Anyone who’s thinking of going into the military should read this first. I’m echoing Harrison’s sentiments (as well as one of his other readers) in saying this. While it’s funny like M*A*S*H, it’s also deadly serious.

Followed by The Planet of the Robot Slaves.

The Confession, by Dominic Stansberry

(pb; 2004: published by Hard Case Crime)


From the back cover:

“Jake Danser has it all: a beautiful wife, a house in the California hills, and a high-profile job as a forensic psychologist. But he’s also got a mistress. And when she’s found strangled to death with his necktie, the police show up at his door. Now it’s up to Jake to prove he didn’t do it. But how can he, when all the evidence says he did?

“As Jake’s life crumbles around him, he races to find proof of his innocence. And with every step, the noose is tightening..."


Review:

Suspenseful, clever noir fiction, with an underlying uneasiness that becomes increasingly evident as the plot advances. The killer is easy to spot, though author Stansberry throws in plenty of red herrings, which are expertly placed; it’s simply that the killer reveals too much through his actions.

Narrated by Jake Danser, a charming (if harried) lady’s man whose second marriage on the rocks, it’s a briskly-told, noir-as-noir-gets story.

My only real nit is that the narrator-protagonist suffers a brief bout of stupidity about midway through the novel, when he lies to the cops about his relationship to one of the other characters. It’s a scene where he could clear himself, and theoretically catch the killer, but he pulls a pseudo-Clinton, jeopardizing his chance to prove his innocence.

A minor nit, but it’s a bump in the road, one that jars the reader’s attention for a second.

Otherwise, this is a highly-recommended read for noir afficionados. Stansberry’s prose isn’t as hard-boiled as Mickey Spillane’s (few non-Spillane works are), but it definitely is a close cousin.

Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith

(pb; 1950)

From the back cover:

“Here we encounter Guy Haines and Charles Anthony Bruno, passengers on the same train. But while Guy is a successful architect in the midst of a divorce, Bruno turns out to be a sadistic psychopath who manipulates Guy into swapping murders with him. ‘Some people are better off dead,’ Bruno remarks, ‘like your wife and my father, for instance.’ As Bruno carries out his twisted plan, Guy is trapped in Highsmith’s perilous world, where, under the right circumstances, anybody is capable of murder...”


Review:

Strangers is a promising and flawed novel from a master noir author who would later give the world the excellent Ripley series.

It is flawed because the characters are too flawed. Charles Anthony Bruno, a “loathsome” sycophantic rich Mama’s boy, gets too much time to ruminate about his murderous obsession. Guy Haines is a spineless lying protagonist who waffles about moral issues when he should be putting Bruno in jail – again, like Bruno’s morbid ruminations, Haines’s waffling goes on for far too long to read realistically. The economic prose that would later make up Highsmith’s finer novels is seen here and there in Strangers, but much of the novel is unnecessary, rambling.

Despite these major flaws, it is easy to see why readers were taken by Highsmith’s debut novel. Highsmith’s coolly analytical tone, a trademark of her writing, and the alternating killer(s)-panic-then-gloat structure that framed The Talented Mr. Ripley is evidenced here, wedged between the lengthier passages. Also, her clever wordplay and dark humor regularly spice up the action.

Ultimately, it’s worth reading, if you can get past Highsmith’s chattering tone and largely unlikeable characters.

#

Three films resulted from this novel.

The first film version was released stateside on June 30, 1951. Alfred Hitchcock directed it, from a screenplay by Raymond Chandler, Czenzi Ormonde and an uncredited Ben Hecht. (Whitfield Cook provided the adaptation for the film.)

Farley Granger played Guy Haines. Robert Walker played Bruno Anthony. Ruth Roman played Anne Morton. Leo G. Caroll played Sen. Morton. Patricia Hitchcock, daughter of Alfred and Alma Reville, played Barbara Morton.

#

The second version, titled Once You Kiss A Stranger, was released stateside on November 12, 1969. Highsmith's novel is the uncredited source, but is widely -- unofficially -- acknowledged as such.

It was directed by Robert Sparr, from a screenplay by Norman Katkov and Frank Tarloff.

Paul Burke played Frank. Carol Lynley played Diana. Martha Hyer played Lee. Whit Bissell played Dr. Haggis



#

The third version, Once You Meet A Stranger, is a television film. It aired stateside on September 25, 1996. Tommy Lee Wallace directed it, from the screenplay of the original film.

Jacqueline Bisset played Sheila Gaines. Nick Mancusco played Aaron. Theresa Russell played Margo Anthony.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Siki City, by Lucifer Fulci

(pb; 2001: novella)

Review:

This novella for serious gorehounds only. That is to say, if you’re put off by the subjects of animal and child dismemberment, necrophilia, excessive gore, pornographic sex, Satanism (the cinematic kind, not the official Church of Satan kind), pedophilia, and serial killing, I’d recommend you skip to another book review.

(To avoid confusion: Lucio Fulci is a famous film director, primarily known for his giallo and zombie films, in which plot consistency is often a hazy afterthought – however, the all-important atmosphere of his better films is intoxicating. Among his better films: The Beyond; Zombie; The Gates of Hell.

(Lucifer Fulci is a member of the heavy metal band Penis Flytrap; i.e., his stage and writing name is itself an homage to the Italian horrormeister. To avoid confusion, I’ll refer to Lucifer Fulci as “author Fulci.”)

Now, the review.

Herschell Gordon Lewis (director of the grue classics 2000 Maniacs!, Blood Feast, and Color Me Blood Red) meets H.P. Lovecraft meets Lucio Fulci in this in-your-face novella, which possesses a welcome, humorous fan-boy ferocity that most so-called “horror novels” lack. It’s an earnest, over-the-top homage to most things horror-related, especially: hard rock (AC/DC, Alice Cooper, KISS), Anton LaVey (ex-head of the Church of Satan), speed metal/punk (Slayer, the Misfits), serial killing, and Walt Disney, all of whom (and which) author Fulci makes direct references to.

The plot runs thusly: Five serial killers from different parts of the country converge on Siki City, a nexus of unholy malevolence, drawn by an “Unnamed” primordial Evil being. The violated corpses left along their psychopathic paths (which converge at a Los Angeles burger joint) attract the attention of a cynical, bordering-on-creepy cop, Cassandra Guetmench (aka, “Guet”).

The cons of Siki City:

The writing, while effusively gory and goofy, needs serious editing. There’s notable misspellings, awkward sentence structures and painfully obvious, overly long descriptions of torture, dismemberment, and related rot. The overly long descriptions, while part of the charm of Siki City, occasionally bog down the fast-paced, 123-page novella, and benumb the reader to the grisly shocks that the descriptions initially deliver. By the time the reader gets to the abstract, horrifying climax (which echoes the ending of Lucio Fulci’s 1981 film, The Beyond, the reader is, or in my case was, tired of blood and guts.

(It could be argued that in gorehound literature, gore is the attraction; however, as illustrated by most porn movies, too much of one element and too little of another can cheapen the effect of the work in question.)

Another quibble I had with Siki City was that author Fulci doesn’t develop his characters much. There’s superficial differences among the serial killers and Guet, but the characters lack real-life dimensions; at best, they’re one-note characters – namely: Allison Rosas, first seen having sex with a morgue corpse, “hooks” (prostitutes herself) when she needs to, to get her feminist-hard fix of “necro-lovin.’” Billy the Butcher (with whom Allison hooks up), is a 330-pound cannibal child-killer and pedophile with the personality of a man-child. Chris and Natalie, a goth couple tired of hanging around wannabe-Satanists, are less murderous but just as twisted as their partners in sickness. Patrick, a gay snuff-film afficionado, gets his kicks from death, whatever form it takes. Guet is your stereotypical tough cop, whose job burn-out verges on random, f***-it-all violence.

The cons of the novella, however, are outweighed by the aforementioned enthusiasm of author Fulci, who shows more, um, guts in his rude barrage of horrific – and gleefully nasty – action. Another pleasure in reading this novel is noting the inside jokes author Fulci inserts into the story – e.g., in the first chapter when a scalpel punctures a human eye, it’s another reference to director Lucio Fulci, who, in his giallo films, had “signature” scenes where human eyeballs get speared, popped, squished or whatever.

Here’s hoping that author Fulci puts out a sequel soon, as suggested by the novella’s sick-with-ripe-promise epilogue. Worthwhile, refreshingly dangerous and unrepentant horror, if you can get past the lack of editing and have a strong constitution.

If you’re interested in owning this popular (among independent publications) novella, you can order it through http://eveblaackpub.com/ebp/index.html .

Monday, April 10, 2006

Bastard Out of Carolina, by Dorothy Allison

(hb; 1992)

From the inside flap:

“Greenville County, South Carolina, is a wild, lush place of black walnut trees and weeping willows, of sweet tea served on shaded porches. It is also the home to the Boatwright family – rough-hewn men who drink hard and shoot up each other’s trucks, and indomitable women who marry young and age all too quickly. At the heart of this memorable family – and of this astonishing novel – is Ruth Anne Boatwright, called Bone by her family, a South Carolina bastard with an annotated birth certificate to tell the tale.

“Bone knows what Greenville County thinks of her family, and when she’s not defending them passionately, she has to agree: Boatwrights are drunks and thieves, and she’d like nothing more than to escape the life they would make for her. Observing everything with a mercilessly keen eye, Bone sees the legacy of poverty and futility that marks her family’s place in this small Southern town – the fierce pride that erupts in rage and violence; the women who ward off loneliness by having more children; the desperation of itinerant souls who scarcely dare to dream of a better life.

“Bone dreams. She dreams of becoming a gospel singer (despite the fact that she can barely carry a tune), or of living a life out of one of the books she steals from the local library. She dreams of a life not only beyond Greenville but also away from Daddy Glen, the stepfather whose tenderness quickly gives way to a sly, meanspirited jealousy that will test the loyalty of her mother, Anney. The edges of this family triangle are sharp enough to draw blood: Glen calls Bone ‘cold as death, mean as a snake, and twice as twisty,’ yet Anney needs Glen ‘like a strong woman needs meat between her teeth.’ At first gentle with Bone, Daddy Glen becomes steadily colder and more furious – until their final, harrowing encounter, from which there can be no turning back...”

Review:

Told from the first-person perspective of Ruth Anne (aka, “Bone”), this is a heartbreaking, vividly-rendered novel. Author Allison’s scenes are detailed and relatable, especially when the sadness, and later, rage, of the characters (particularly Bone’s) come to the surface, infusing the characters’ actions with a palpable brutality that made me forget that I was reading a book. I was so engrossed in this book that I cursed every time my reading of it was interrupted.

Bastard Out of Carolina isn’t all darkness, though. There’s plenty of love and strength, despite the pervasive poverty and gloom of the Boatwright households, and that’s a major reason why I kept reading this; that, and author Allison creates such actualized characters – even Daddy Glen is not completely evil – that ring true.

Not an easy read (there’s semi-explicit and horrifying depictions of molestation, depression, fury and violence), but highly recommended.

The resulting cable film aired on December 15, 1996.

Jena Malone played Ruth Anne. Jennifer Jason Leigh played Anney Boatwright. Ron Eldard played “Daddy Glen” Waddell. Lyle Lovett played Wade. Christina Ricci played Dee Dee. Michael Rooker played Uncle Earle.

Anjelica Huston directed the film, from a teleplay by Anne Meredith.

The Tough Guys, by Mickey Spillane

(pb; 1965: novella anthology)

Overall review:

A must-read for anybody who’s into noir fiction. This three-novella collection is worth reading, despite a couple of notable imperfections.

Review, novella by novella:

“Kick It Or Kill!” (1963) – Kelly Smith, a blunt-spoken, mysterious do-gooder with a violent streak visits a small town that’s ruled by an international drug ring. This is one of the rawest, most electrifying noir tales I’ve read in a long time. Perfect, this: most of the lines contained in this story are gut-punches – one of the highest compliments I can pay any noir work.

“The Seven Year Kill” (1964) – Equally convoluted and less raw than “Kick It Or Kill!,” this story is good, with Spillane’s trademark elements in place: a confident chump who’s (seemingly) over his head, dirty politics, sudden twists, and non-stop action punctuated with bitch-sharp dialogue. The initial set-up reveals a major flaw (there’s a highly unlikely “coincidence” upon which the tale hinges), but it’s still enjoyable.

“The Bastard Bannerman” (1964) – Cat Cay Bannerman, the family bastard (he was born out of wedlock), returns to the family estate he abandoned many years before. He discovers that Syndicate members are blackmailing his spoiled, cruel relatives, whom he helps, despite his dislike of them. Lighter than the preceding tales, it sports an obvious killer; even with the “obvious killer” nit, it's exciting and believable.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Vision Quest, by Terry Davis

(hb; 1979)

From the inside flap:

“Eighteen-year old Louden Swain is a high school wrestle preparing for a big match against a ferocious opponent. He must lose weight, gain strength, and keep his balance – but of course there’s much more to it then that. As for Kuch, his irrepressible half-Indian teammate puts it, ‘I’d like to see if I can’t find my place in the circle. I’d like to know why things happen. I want to get clean.’

“Now, in the ample hours of this time beyond boyhood, the real learning must begin. Louden’s love affair with the adorable Carla is more than a delicious romp; his treks to the Columbia River and the mountains are more than reminiscent excursions, his wrestling practice and his diet more than mere feats of physical endurance. And then there is his inveterate novel-reading: James Agee and Bulgakov, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Kafka, and Carlos Castaneda – these are the literary witnesses to his quest for vision and maturity...”

Review:

Wrestling, youthful exuberance, cheerful horniness and spiritual-philosophical ramblings make up the chatty literary soup about Louden Swain, whose titular “quest” is to do something that most people don’t really understand: defeat Shute, a rival wrestler who will probably "grind" Louden's body into the wrestling mat. It’s well-written, and often hard to put down, but occasionally – especially in the last quarter of the novel – Davis gets carried away with Louden’s first-person narrative.

The location(s) of certain works become characters themselves, and Vision Quest (set in Spokane, WA.) is no exception to that cliche. Louden's perceptions and memories are centered in Pacific Northwestern sensibilities and locations. This gives a more personal feel to the novel, especially for those of us who actually live in Spokane.

Simply put: good read (with a stunning finish), better movie.

Filmed in Spokane in 1985, Matthew Modine starred as Louden Swain. Linda Fiorentino played Carla. Michael Schoeffling played Kuch. Ronny Cox played Larry Swain, Louden’s father. Directed by Harold Becker.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

The Kid (What Happened After My Boyfriend And I Decided To Go Get Pregnant), by Dan Savage

(pb; 1999: non-fiction)

From the inside flap:

“From Dan Savage, the writer whose sex-advice column, ‘Savage Love,’ enrages and excites four million people every week, comes the compelling and unexpected story of his journey to parenthood.

“Dan and his boyfriend, Terry, want a baby. So they do what millions of other couples do: They decide to adopt.

“Their odyssey begins at a two-day seminar in Portland, with six other couples – all straight – who can’t conceive, either. After rejecting the idea of making a ‘bio-kid’ with a lesbian couple, a lesbian single, and even their straight next-door neighbor, an and Terry decide on an ‘open adoption,’ in which the birth mother selects the adoptive parents for her child. Their gay friends think they’re sellouts. The far right think they’re sinners. And the odds of a mother selecting a gay couple for her baby (most seem to be looking for ‘Christian homes’) must be a million to one.

“When Dan and Terry are selected by the birth mother, they announce, ‘We’re pregnant!’ But there are issues: the Mother – a street kid – drank and used drugs during the pregnancy, so there’s the risk of fetal alcohol syndrome, and despite the doctor’s order to get bed rest, she’s still living on the streets. As an and Terry tag along on her prenatal visits and the due date rapidly approaches, the fears common to expectant parents mount: What if the baby isn’t healthy? What if we aren’t parent material? And what if birth mother changes her mind and decides to keep the baby? Meanwhile, giddy, prospective grandmothers are violating an and Terry’s ‘no gifts before birth’ decree by buying things they just couldn’t resist, like two I Love Daddy bibs from Dan’s mother.

“In The Kid, Dan Savage shares his views on what it means to be gay and raising a child in America today. In the process, he takes his usual scathingly funny, on-target potshots at everything from growing up gay to committing to a younger man, from the gay left to the religious right, homophobia... love... getting fat... getting married... getting old... and the very human desire to have a family.”

Review:

Savage, consistent with his alternate-newspaper column “Savage Love,” is journal-honest about the personal situations that him and his boyfriend, Terry, encounter when they decide to adopt their infant son, Daryl-Jude Pierce.

There’s lots of humor, of course, but there’s also Savage’s blunt takes on reparative therapy (“‘... the vast majority of us have no interest in becoming ‘ex-gay’”) and other agendas of Fundamentalists Xians, the dynamics of romantic/sexual/familial relationships (gay and straight), the legal hurtles and emotions prospective adoptive parents experience, and the possible futures our children face.

Those familiar with Savage’s column may have to remind themselves that Savage’s column/word-count restraints aren’t enforced here, so Savage's writing is relatively expansive. That is to say, it’s no less personal and affecting than his column.

This is a literate and discussion-provoking book, worth your time.

It’s Not Easy Bein’ Me, by Rodney Dangerfield

(hb; 2004: autobiography)

Review:

Lightweight but inspirational read, heavily peppered with many of Dangerfield’s trademark, self-deprecating jokes.

Born in Babylon, New York, in 1921, Jacob Cohen (who later changed his name to Jack Roy, then to Rodney Dangerfield) had a crappy childhood. At fifteen, he started writing jokes – to quote Dangerfield: “I was always depressed, but I could tell a joke and my jokes were funny.”

Later, when he became an adult, he spent many working the club circuit, often broke, honing his act, until, later in his life, he became a star.

Dangerfield includes a notable number of non-explicit drug and sex experiences in his real-life narrative, some of them funny, some of them superfluous -- and brief.

Dangerfield also mentions people he worked with, gave a break to, or whose shows he was on: Ed Sullivan, Redd Foxx, Johnny Carson, Lenny Bruce, Jim Carrey, Ron Jeremy, Dean Martin, Andy Kaufman, Flip Wilson, Jerry Seinfeld, Robert Townsend, Jeff Foxworthy, Oliver Stone, Roseanna Barr, Andrew Dice Clay, Rita Rudner, Tim Allen, and Sam Kinison (to whom Dangerfield gives a heartfelt memoriam).

Dangerfield died on October 5, 2004, following a heart surgery complication and brief coma.

Dangerfield's comedic sense of timing makes It's Not Easy a smart, show business-informative, funny, inspiring and streamlined book.

Check it out.

<em>Phantom</em> by Jo Nesbø

(hb;  2011, 2012: ninth novel in the Inspector Harry Hole series. Translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett .) From the back cover...