Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Screwtape Letters, by C.S. Lewis

(pb; 1941)

From the back cover:

"The letters of the infernal Screwtape, a senior devil from a highly organized, computerized Hell, deftly instructs his nephew Wormwood, a junior demon, in the artof winning over a young man's soul -- not by a sudden fall into mortal sin, but by the routine and undramatic temptations of daily life.

"The Screwtape Letters takes us into a world that is immediate, familiar, and amusing, and so exposes the true nature of evil. . . and the very real devils in all our lives."


Lewis, through the fictional demon Screwtape, dryly skewers the vanities of mortal men, Christians and non-Christians, while exposing chinks in the spiritual armor and methods of both men and God, aka "the Enemy".

A must-read for anyone who's interested in Christianity, or just looking for a worthwhile satire. My only nit about this effective, word-taut work is that near the end of the 93-page novella Lewis/Screwtape begins to repeat his clever observations, albeit in a different form. A few chapters could've easily been trimmed from this; that said, this is one of my all-time favorite satirical works.

Check it out.

Followed by Screwtape Proposes a Toast.

Friday, August 22, 2008

No One You Know, by Michelle Richmond

(hb; 2008)


"All her life Ellie Enderlin had been known as Lila's sister. Until the day Lila, a top math student at Stanford, was murdered, and the shape of their family was changed forever. In the aftermath of her sister's death, Ellie entrusted her most intimate feelings to a man who turned the story into a best-selling true crime book -- a book that devastated her family and identified one of Lila's colleagues as the killer.

"Twenty years later, Ellie is now a professional coffee buyer, an inveterate traveler who is incapable of trust. In a chance meeting with the man accused of the crime, she comes into possession of the notebook filled with mathematical equations that Lila carried everywhere. Stunned, she will return home to San Francisco to explore the mysteries of Lila's notebook and begin a search that will lead her to a centuries-old mathematical puzzle, to the motives and fate of the man who profited from their family's anguish -- and to the deepest secrets even sisters keep from each other. As she connects with people whose lives unknowingly intersected with her own, Ellie will confront a series of startling revelations -- from the eloquent truths of numbers to confessions of love, pain, and loss."


The plot and themes of No One are so similar to that of The Year of Fog that comparisons to the earlier novel are inevitable. In both novels, the main protagonists travel between San Francisco (their home city) and Central America (in No One, Ellie Enderlin travels to Nicaragua; in Year, Abby Mason travels to Costa Rica). The reason? They're both on the trail of a long-gone family member: in No One, Ellie's searching for clues to the identity of her sister's killer, as well as "proofs" that will help her know her sister (Lila), and herself, better; in Year, Abby's looking for her kidnapped child (Emma), who's thought dead by the rest of her family.

I only mention this because it's an obvious comparison, and one I wish to dispel: while the plot and structural elements are similar, their dynamics are varied. Ellie (in No One) isn't as desperate as Abby (in Year) -- losing one's sibling, while traumatic, is dissimilar to losing one's only child; the attendant emotions of both traumas have distinctive traits and questions. Also, Richmond has shuffled around their structural elements: No One begins in Nicaragua, while Year begins in San Francisco/the Bay Area; it's not until later in Year that Abby's quest leads her to Costa Rica. As if that weren't enough to differentiate the two characters, Ellie's and Abby's personalities/journeys are unique to each of them.

Richmond once again shows her love of San Francisco/the East Bay by mentioning city-specific locations that I, as an East Bay resident, recognized -- as in Year, No One's locales are both tourist-friendly and local-cool/friendly.

Emotional without being excessive, plot-true without sacrificing the characters' emotional quotients/elements, and all-around well-written, this is a superb follow-up to The Year of Fog.

Pick this up.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Rollin' with Dre: The Unauthorized Account, by Bruce Williams with Donnell Alexander

(hb; 2008: memoir)

From the inside flap:

"As Dre's confidant and the problem-solver to a stable of artists and others who came to know him as 'Uncle Bruce,' Williams was either there when the action went down or close enough to feel the hollowpoints whiz by: Dre perfecting the gangsta era's signature sound displayed on his highly influential The Chronic and its Snoop Dogg-helmed follow-up, Doggystyle; getting out from under Death Row Records, the label Dre co-founded with impresario Suge Knight; launching the careers of Eminem, 50 Cent, and The Game.

"Williams lays it out in black and white, from dish on Tupac Shakur's chaotic rise and fall to the deadly feud between The Row (formerly Death Row Records) and the East Coast MCs and bigshots, from Suge's legal battles to Dre's reconciliation with Eazy-E before E's untimely demise from AIDS, from the hard-won 'overnight' successes of Snoop and Eminem to what it was like rollin' with giants and legends-in-the-making -- and living the life (and bearing the burdens) as a bona-fide master of the game."


Engaging, solid read. Williams, a former soldier and former prison guard, comes off as a smart, level-headed individual who found himself befriending, and later working for, Andre "Dr. Dre" Young, who, while a genius DJ/producer at the mixing board, was disconnected from the day-to-day realities surrounding him. . . realities that Williams dealt with, on Dre's behalf, for fifteen years. These realities ranged from setting up parties, to chilling out "wilding" (out of control) friends and business associates. One business associate Williams was careful not to offend, but not kowtow to, was Marion "Suge" Knight, the shady, drug-dealing thug who ran the record company Death Row Records; Knight's strong arm tactics later wound Knight up in a prison. Williams also dealt with less volatile personalities, like rapper/lyricist The D.O.C. (aka, Tracy Curry), Tupac (who, less volatile than Knight, adopted the wild attitude of those around him), 50 Cent (aka, Curtis Jackson), The Game, and Eminem (aka, Marshall Mathers, a sensitive mostly-nice kid with a sharp tongue).

In between the gangsta-tale telling, Williams (with Alexander's help) sketches in changes in his own life, about how he went from being wowed by the opulent lifestyle of the rappers (but not the rappers themselves -- bear in mind, Williams had dealt with tough guys in the military and prison) and being a playa of women, to meeting his wife, Vivian, becoming a responsible, happy father of three, and becoming an L.A. club co-owner (with his wife).

He also talks about his friendship with Dre, how it waxed and waned over time. Williams, however, never talks bad about Dre, aside from being sad about opportunities that Dre and other promising friends/rappers lost when Dre dropped the ball in certain business and personal situations. Mostly, Williams, who never comes off as self important -- he shows himself as a witness to events, not a major player -- just seems grateful for the experiences and people around him who helped him get to where he is today: that's a large part of what makes this such a good read, besides the tight editing and the occasionally salacious tale-telling.

Good read, this. Check it out.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

'F' is for Fugitive, by Sue Grafton

(pb; 1989: sixth book in the Kinsey Millhone mysteries)

From the back cover:

"Everyone knew the kind of girl Jean Timberlake was -- ask anybody in the sleepy surf town of Floral Beach and they'd say Jean was wild, looking for trouble. But she certainly wasn't looking for murder. She was found dead on the beach seventeen years ago, and a rowdy ex-boyfriend named Bailey Fowler was convicted of her murder and imprisoned -- and then Bailey escaped. Now, private eye Kinsey Millhone steps into a case that never should have closed, in a town where there's no such thing as a 'private' investigation."


Millhone's investigation of Jean Timberlake's murder takes a lot of sordid turns, as she works her way through a cold-case that, seventeen years later, still incenses the citizens of the small town where it happened; those incensed are pissed for different reasons, as Millhone finds out, flurries of deceits (some petty, some deadly) dancing around her every investigative step.

Grafton's tight writing and thumbnail-sketched, effectively-rendered characters -- as well as Kinsey's wits and semi-quirky sense of humor -- carry the tale once again, however. The killer's identity was obvious (to me, anyway), but the scene where the killer is revealed made me think of one of the more chilling scenes in the 1978 film Halloween.

Good story, as usual, with characters who are memorably shady, and/or memorably human. Grafton's writing keeps getting better and better.

Followed by 'G' is for Gumshoe.

Monday, August 11, 2008

The Last Detail, by Darryl Ponicsan

(hb; 1970)


In Norfolk, Virginia, two Naval Petty Officers -- Billy James Buddusky (aka, "Billy Bad-Ass"), a book- and street-smart Polack with a quick wit and equally-quick fists, and Richard Mulhall (aka,"Mule"), a black, usually level-headed man whose stubbornness validates his nickname -- pull "chaser" duty (escorting a fellow Navy man to the brig), a job considered to be choice work. Both Buddusky and Mulhall, in their mid-thirties, have been in the Navy for fourteen years and are comfortable with their "lifer" status -- six more years, and they can retire, well-off and happy.

Their prisoner, Lawrence Meadows, an eighteen-year old, kind-hearted kleptomaniac, has recently, stupidly, stolen forty dollars from a charity box in a commisary store. Because that particular charity box is the favorite charity of a high-ranking officer's wife, Meadows's punishment is excessively harsh: he's been sentenced to eight years in the brig, located in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

An aura of fatalism and tragic inevitability hovers heavy over this sometimes-hilarious, often-heartbreaking story about these three men who, for all their differences, quickly become friends. It's not just another detail for any of them -- for Meadows, who's inexperienced in worldly matters (namely "booze and broads"), it's possibly his last chance at enjoying (relative) freedom; for Buddusky and Mulhall it's a disruption of their comfortable routine, a routine that prior to this detail, looked to be a given for the next six years.

Unpredictable, full of wild behavior and sharp/raw dialogue, this is an exhilarating blast of a read. The ending's not Hollywood-happy, but it doesn't need to be, because the heart of this book is its memorable characters (Buddusky, Mulhall, Meadows) and their life-changing interactions.

Great stuff. Check it out.

Followed by Last Flag Flying.

The Last Detail hit the silver screen on December 12, 1973. Jack Nicholson played "SM1 Billy 'Bad Ass' Buddusky". Otis Young played "GM1 'Mule' Mulhall". Randy Quaid played "Seaman Larry Meadows". Carol Kane played a "Young Whore". Michael Moriarty played a "Marine O.D.". Nancy Allen played Nancy.

Hal Ashby directed the film, from a script by Robert Towne.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Magus of Stonewylde, by Kit Berry

(pb; 2005)

From the back cover:

"Sylvie and her mother come to Stonewylde, a beautiful estate hidden in rural England, and believe their troubles are over. Stonewylde is a place of standing stones and earth energy, an idyllic refuge from the modern world.

"But all is not quite as it seems. There's another side to Stonewylde, a darker more sinister side where brutality is rife. One boy understands why Sylvie has come. And why his life is now in danger."


A sickly teenage girl (Sylvie) with mysterious allergies and allergy-attendant eczema (unseemly-looking flaky skin) is brought by her mother, Miranda, to a charming back-country village (Stonewylde) where alternative medicines and "magic" take precedence. Societally speaking, Stonewylde is a throwback to an almost-medieval age, where feudalism is the rule; there are two classes in Stonewylde: the educated Hallfolk who travel between the modern world and Stonewylde, and Villagers, who live in relative poverty, and do most of the grunt work in Stonewylde. Sylvie and Miranda, unfamiliar with this older society, are slowly, charmingly, being courted into becoming Hallfolk by the Magus (aka, Solstice, or "Sol"), whose iron fist methods of ruling Stonewylde are hidden beneath velvet gloves.

Yul, fifteen, headstrong, and one of the Villagers, is all too familiar with the Magus's cruelties, as he is constantly a victim of them. Seems the Magus, like Yul's drunk, abusive father, has taken a strong dislike to Yul, and Yul can't understand why. It's easy to understand why Yul's father is the way he is; but the Magus is another matter.

When Yul and Sylvie meet, changes immediately begin to happen -- slowly, at first, but by the end of this first Stonewylde book (there are to be five in the series) no one in Stonewylde can doubt that dynamic, crazy changes are about to flip their social order on its side.

Kit Berry is a plain-spoken writer, ably balancing elements of fantasy, restrained romance, adventure, and modern-day tensions. No flashiness to her fleet-footed prose, but plenty of show-it-like-it-is descriptions that gripped this reader, and made me loathe to put it down for relatively unimportant things like going to work, sleep, or eating. The main thing that caught me was how real and multidimensional her characters feel: even her bad-guy characters are shown to be relatably human, with their own (often misguided) reasons for their actions. I still cursed at them when they did cruel things (and there's plenty of cruelty going around), but at the same time I also understood why the bad guys acted the way they did.

I'd hesitate to recommend this gem to tweens. There are veiled references to rape, more than a few references to sex (all of them tasteful, and relatively veiled), and a few scenes of whipping/torture that would pale in comparison to certain "torture porn" flicks of recent years (the Saw series, and the much-better Hostel series come to mind). All of these darker elements are justified by -- and necessary to -- the themes of paganism, light and darkness that run through this well-written, engaging work that manages to work on a personal, character-centric level, while telegraphing a story that looks to go "epic" soon.

Can't wait to read the next Stonewylde book, Moondance of Stonewylde.

Friday, August 01, 2008

Devil May Care, by Sebastian Faulks

(hb; 2008)

From the inside flap:

"An Algerian drug runner is savagely executed in the desolate outskirts of Paris. This seemingly isolated event leads to the recall of Agent 007 from his sabbatical in Rome and his return to the world of intrigue and danger where he is most at home. The head of M16, M, assigns him to shadow the mysterious Dr. Julius Gorner, a power-crazed pharmaceutical magnate, whose wealth is exceeded only by his greed. Gorner has lately taken a disquieting interest in opiate derivatives, both legal and illegal, and this urgently bears looking into.

"Bond finds a willing accomplice in the shape of a glamorous Parisian named Scarlett Papava. He will need her help in a life-and-death struggle with his most dangerous adversary yet, as a chain of events threatens to lead to global catastrophe. A British airliner goes missing over Iraq. The thunder of a coming war echoes in the Middle East. And a tide of lethal narcotics threatens to engulf a Great Britain in the throes of the social upheavals of the the late sixties."


Faulks captures well the feel of an Ian Fleming 007 novel, touching thematically, structurally, or mood-wise on most, if not all of Fleming's Bond books. It's all here: the action, the grandiose-minded, esoteric villains (in this case Julius Gorner, who recalls Auric Goldfinger, and Chagrin, who calls to mind Goldfinger's Oddjob), the beautiful flirty women, and a heroine/femme fatale (who may or may not be what she seems). What transcends Faulks's work above a mere aping of Fleming's original fourteen novels is the small twists Faulks buries within the Bond template-plot tics. Not all of them are unexpected, but they are effective, providing a freshness to the familiar story-structure, while lending what I would presume to be Faulks's personal touches to the work.

The action takes place twenty-one months after the events of The Man With the Golden Gun. It's the late Sixties: the Rolling Stones have just been busted for drug possession. America is not so covertly waging early war in Vietnam, and pissed at Great Britain for not supporting its foolish (police) actions. All of these elements add to the timeliness and freshness of this hard-to-put-down book; it's Bond for a new age, and a book that should become a film, ASAP.

In the meantime, there's the upcoming film
Quantum of Solace, which opens in theaters on November 7, 2008. It takes its title from a short story of the same name in Fleming's Bond anthology, For Your Eyes Only.

An interesting note on Quantum of Solace. . . this, from "The producers and writers of Quantum of Solace have stated that the action of the film picks up 'almost an hour after the close of Casino Royale'. They have also said it will be a continuation of the story established in Casino Royale. In this way it can be regarded as a true sequel to Royale and, like that film, is separate in continuity to any of the previous Bond films to come before. While sharing the same continuity of the character, the previous Bond films were more 'stand-alone' adventures of the super spy than sequels that told one ongoing story. It is not clear how long the producers intend to continue this ret-con of Bond films in this manner, but they have already openly stated that they do not intend to re-visit or remake any of the material from the previously released series of Bond films."

<em>Mother Night</em> by Kurt Vonnegut

(pb; 1961) From the back cover “ Mother Night is a daring challenge to our moral sense. American Howard W. Campbell, Jr., a spy du...