Wednesday, July 18, 2007

A boy, a boat, an ocean... and a tiger

Title: Life of Pi
Author: Yann Martel

I'm not quite sure what all the fuss was about with this book. It was good, sure, but it wasn't fantastic. I'm sure I must be missing something. I haven't read fiction in a while and it kept me interested, so that's a start. Maybe I just don't like books that throw you for a loop in the last 15 pages. Life is confusing enough, give me a clear final answer please.

Piscine Molitor Patel is an Indian boy whose family owns a zoo. Because "Piscine" is quickly changed to "pissing" by cruel children, Piscine becomes Pi (like the number). When Pi is 16 his family decides to emigrate to Canada... with their animals. On their way across the great big ocean, their Japanese cargo ship sinks and Pi soon finds himself in the lifeboat with an orangutan, a zebra, a hyena, and... Richard Parker, the oddly named tiger.

Soon it is just Pi and the tiger. Throughout his 200+ days at sea, Pi has to establish his dominance over Richard Parker. He does this by providing food and water, marking his territory (yes, by peeing all over it), blowing a loud irritating whistle, and more. And he succeeds.

This is all very well-written, believable, and great.

Then comes the disappointing end of the book. WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD!

So, Pi runs out of food and water and enters into a state of delirium during which he:
  1. Holds conversations with himself
  2. Holds conversations with Richard Parker (who has a French accent, by the way)
  3. Encounters another lifeboat drifter at a time during which both Pi and the other drifter are blind. Richard Parker quickly dispatches the other guy.
Things are getting just a little harder to believe because #3 is supposed to actually happen. Pi, whose blindness goes away once he's had some food, finds the body.

Then, it gets worse. Pi comes across an island made of delicious seaweed, free-floating in the ocean with millions of meerkats as its sole inhabitants. And the island is carnivorous! Pi finds a set of human teeth in the fruit of a tree. Apparently at night the seaweed becomes poisonous to walk on.

So he leaves the island and winds up in Mexico, where Richard Parker quickly leaves him. Which results in a lack of proof for his story. Hmm.

So, to sum up this long, rambling post, I have the following issues with this book:
  1. At the very end, a second story is made up to detail Pi's time at sea, so you are left not really knowing if there was a tiger or not.
  2. The author went through great lengths to make the story completely believable and then scrapped that in the last fourth of the book.
  3. The part of the journey between the island and Mexico was completely brushed over, as if the author had gotten tired of writing the book.
If anyone has a different opinion, or some light to shed, please comment.


posted by Kate at 10:52 AM


before it was camp

Farewell, My Lovely
By Raymond Chandler

You can tell the book's pretty old when "Negro" shows up in the first sentence. (first published in 1940) Given its age, I kind of had to excuse that sort of thing. Besides, it was one of the most entertaining books I've read in a very long time.

I'm not sure that I've ever actually read any of the classic detective fiction (unless homages count), but if this is what I've been missing, I need to get more of that stuff, now. Chandler doesn't bother writing perfect characters--his are positively riddled with flaws. Even the hero of the book, Philip Marlowe, while a typical noir hard-nosed good-looking-in-a-craggy,-tired-way PI with an unbelievable ability to sort out over-complicated plots and sift nuggets of truth out of mountains of crap, is a chain-smoking hard-ass who got fired from a job at the DA's office, is on a permanent quest to pickle his liver, and makes out with another man's wife because she asked him nicely and gave him "a smile (he) could feel in (his) hip pocket."

Like all classic detectives, he works alone, but Anne Riordan accidentally finds him at a crime scene, occasionally figures things out for him, and spends the entire book trying to get in his pants without actually letting him know that she wants him. Cute. She does manage to show up at many opportune times, and her involvement, though often overlapping what Marlowe discovers on his own, helps him to unravel a story involving three murders, a fake robbery, a real robbery, a missing person, and a scam psychic.

Admittedly, a lot of it is trite stuff; the cliches we've been seeing for ages. But Chandler wrote this in the forties, before everybody else picked it up. He did it first, so it's not trite at all--it's the style that everybody else copied. I could read this book over and over just for his descriptions. A portrayal of a character may last an entire paragraph before they get to say anything, just so you have a perfectly clear picture in your mind before you have to imagine them talking.

He was a big man but not more than six feet five inches tall and not wider than a beer truck... He was worth looking at. He wore a shaggy borsalino hat, a rough gray sports coat with white golf balls on it for buttons, a brown shirt, a yellow tie, pleated gray flannel slacks and alligator shoes with white explosions on the toes. From his outer breast pocket cascaded a show handkerchief of the same brilliant yellow as his tie. There were a couple of colored feathers tucked into the band of his hat, but he didn't really need them. Even on Central Avenue, not the quietest dressed street in the world, he looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food.

The descriptions of people and places are amazing, but there are also random similes that come out of the blue to slap you with a rubber chicken, just to make sure you're paying attention, and one-liner summaries that tell you all you need to know. Like the photograph of "a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window."

Chandler's characters are so sharp you expect to start bleeding as you run your finger down the page, reading slowly to not miss anything, and repeating things out loud to decide if you could ever get away with saying things "I bet she snaps a mean garter" a scant few pages after "I'm a Tibetan monk in my spare time." Even in a plot so complex James Bond would need a slide rule and a flipchart to figure it out, they seem believable, and the dialog is exactly what you want the dialog to be. Again, it has to be viewed in light of being written over half a century ago, but even now the interplay between Marlowe and anybody, from a high society dame to a corner hot dog vendor, just... crackles. Few preceded Chandler in this game (Dashiel Hammet, for instance), but everyone who followed was following in his footsteps. If that doesn't qualify Chandler as literary hero material, then at least put up a statue for Marlowe, who gets internal dialog lines like:

I needed a drink, I needed a lot of life insurance, I needed a vacation, I needed a home in the country. What I had was a coat, a hat, and a gun. I put them on and went out of the room.

Marlowe gets the crap kicked out of him three or four times, and simply regards it as a matter of course for the job. Despite all his faults--which he freely admits, nearly to the point of celebrating them--he's a good man. He won't take someone's money if he can't or won't do the job, and sometimes makes his job harder to justify the money they want to pay him anyway. He lies to protect innocents from criminals and crooked cops, and despite being a guy who has to work on the very edges of the law, he maintains a very solid sense of right and wrong. Except for the whole philandering thing. I have to respect that.

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posted by reyn at 6:04 AM


Monday, July 09, 2007


Title: Charlie All Night
Author: Jennifer Cruise

Allie's a super-star radio producer (in small-town Ohio); the book opens with her former boyfriend and the station's biggest star (Mark) firing her so his current, younger, cuter, ditzier girlfriend can be his producer. Allie gets stuck producing the station's newest hire, Charlie, in the crappiest time-slot known to man.

Charlie's not really a deejay - he's a bit of a slacker, really, without any career direction. His father's friends with the owner of the station, who received a "threatening" letter, so Charlie somehow got sent there to "investigate".

Allie and Charlie meet when she pretends to pick him up at the bar across the street from the station to make Mark jealous, or maybe she was upset (I read this a while ago) - either way, she didn't know he was the guy she'd be working with, and was subsequently highly embarassed when she found out.

Allie lives with her gay best friend Joe, who's an accountant at the station. Somehow Joe ends up staying with them. Allie promptly decides to have an affair with Charlie, knowing he's not planning on staying in town long.

He quickly develops a following on his show, all the while secretly investigating the "threat" - as it turns out, Grady, the station owner's son and another deejay, has been secretly growing pot (he's a giant hippie with a show talking about crystals) because his mother was recently battling breast cancer, and it helped her deal with chemo, and now she's dealing his pot to all her friends who need help dealing with chemo symptoms.

Somehow it all gets resolved, Grady gets off rather easy by confessing, and Charlie and Allie realize they're a perfect team, on and off the air, and though they could take over Mark's drive time slot because he's a giant jerk and sucks, they decide to stay with their late-night one because they have more freedom there. Ta-da!


posted by ket at 11:02 PM


Uh, more vampires. Yeah.

Title: A Quick Bite
Author: Lynsay Sands

Dr. Greg Something-or-other is a psychologist who specializes in curing phobias. Marguerite kidnaps him to cure her daughter’s hemophobia – she faints when she sees blood. This wouldn’t be a big problem, but Marguerite, Lissiana, and the rest of their family are vampires. Apparently the vampire council of some sort decided a while back that vampires should feed from bags of blood they obtain from some sort of blood bank, but Lissiana can’t handle seeing the bag of blood, so she has to still bite people. Apparently vampires (at least this branch of them…) also have the ability to read minds and control people. So, anyway, Lissi’s out with her cousins, comes home, and finds Greg tied up on her bed and waiting for her, so she figures he’s a birthday present from mom, and starts feeding. Also, feeding apparently involves making out. Anyway, they sortof clear things up after the family bursts into the bedroom while she’s making out with/feeding from Greg, who rather enjoys it.

Anyway, apparently they have a harder time than normal controlling Greg, so the vampire council considers “taking care of” him. Lissi therefore escapes with him.

Oh! Sub-plot! Lissi volunteers at a homeless shelter – her theory was that she’d be able to feed on various residents, and they’d be transient enough that she could do so on a regular basis without anyone noticing. The problem is that a lot of the homeless folk are regulars, and also that a lot of them are on mind-altering substances, which Lissi discovers after she feeds on their blood and is suddenly drunk or high. But the point of mentioning this is that the priest who runs the shelter somehow figures out that she’s a vampire, and starts trying to ward her off by putting crosses all over her desk (doesn’t work), feeding her a garlic-laden soup (another myth), and so on, and nobody catches on. Duh!

At some point “someone” breaks into the house and stakes her in the chest. Thankfully, vampires also have super-awesome healing powers, and she survives.

Also, Lissi and Greg fall in love. But she’s immortal, and he’ll die! Oh, I guess she should just turn him into a vampire, even though he’ll have to stop talking to his family forever, because pretty soon they’ll realize he’s not aging.

So the priest kidnaps them, and he and his henchman wound Greg and Lissi, and chain them in the sun (that part’s semi-true – they can’t handle a LOT of sun), hoping they’ll die, but somehow the vampire family figures it out and saves them, and Greg and Lissi will live happily ever after forever and ever and ever.

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posted by ket at 11:00 PM


another book I didn't finish

Title: The Blind Watchmaker
Author: Richard Dawkins

Interesting arguments, very detailed and logical, but it feels like I’m reading the transcript of an entire semester of a college course, especially since he talks directly to the reader (“when you think of a mutation…”), and I therefore only made it halfway through before giving in to the library’s demands to return it, since I’ve had it checked out for about 2 months now. Plus, I already believe in evolution, and I don't plan on entering into any debates with people who don't (if they can ignore the overwhelming evidence thus far, me presenting arguments from this book, however sensible they are, won't help).

There are, however, some highly amusing moments when he talks about making computer simulations of evolution, and he's using the latest technology... of 1985! Fantastic. :-)

The book seems to be written for people who either don't believe in evolution, or are wavering - it might work on the waverers...

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posted by ket at 10:55 PM


Tuesday, July 03, 2007


E.T. The Book of the Green Planet
By William "I swear I didn't make up this name" Kotzwinkle

Remember the scene in E.T. when the little guy is sick, gets really pale, and his skin has the same color and texture of a pork chop? For months after seeing that movie, my addled young brain could never remember "pork" and instead had to ask Mom, every time she mentioned pork, "is that the E.T. meat?" I also called clam chowder "whale soup." Somehow, I suspect that this is the paragraph that will get the most comments.

Time for a different analogy.
If the movie was a steak, the book is a hot dog. Sure, it takes a little of the good stuff from a steak, but it also takes a bunch of other random, bizarre, and unidentifiable stuff and packs it in there, too, and then wraps it in a shiny cover. After the steak, you're sated and happy; the meal is complete. After a hot dog, you're always left looking around for something else--anything else--to wrap things up. Hell, even another hot dog would be ok, just so long as it provides some sort of finality or closure.

I couldn't even tell whether it was a children's book (very simple structure, lots of kid-friendly characters and moments), young adult's book (Elliot is trying to figure out how to woo some girl with a ponytail. Half fish? Dude, the kid can't even sidestroke.), or a book for mildly mentally-incapacitated adults (see above, plus mention of Elliot's dad's infidelity and desertion, and E.T.'s treason). It just showed up at my door Friday night, so I read it. (Incidentally, that's also how I got a wino for a roommate.) And I still enjoyed it, because it was light and fluffy, and it had E.T.

Basic plot: E.T. returns to his homeworld, where he's a Doctor of Botany, First Class (remember how much he liked Gertie's geraniums?), carrying a checkerboard, a geranium, a bunch of half-remembered earth slang, and a somewhat confused idea of our social structure (his only contact was with children who gave him candy and beer, and government operatives who chased him with trucks). He expects to be heralded as an emissary and new ambassador to Earth, hoping to use this new status to visit Elliot again, only to be demoted and sent out to the fields in the agricultural district.

Then there's lots of little mishaps and discoveries about his planet, like all of the plant life which seems to be more sentient than the people in my previous read, yet is still used as a food source. Sure, it's barbaric to eat a cow, but having a conversation with the plant that will become your breakfast cereal? That might be too much for me. And I really like cereal. There are also plants that play music, run around screaming, and trees that migrate, and have jumping contests. Awesome. The whole time he's farming, he's also plotting to get back to Elliot, and sending a telepathic copy of himself back to Earth for... I don't know, comic relief? I'll give Kotzwinkle this much: it's extremely imaginative. And you've gotta have some love for a book with exchanges like:

"One day I will master the language. I will be able to talk to anyone on Earth--to mathematicians, astronauts, lawmakers, botanists, and--and nerds."
"They are a small but important group."

Then there's some spoiler stuff, and some other spoiler stuff, and the book ends just when you're hoping to get some closure, but according to the back cover, there isn't even another book. The basic message seems to be: be nice to everybody, and you'll be rewarded for it. Eventually.

ket, if I've ruined one of your favorite childhood books, I apologize. I'll send you some Encyclopedia Browns right away so you can tear them apart and point out that if the criminals didn't center their crimes around obscure trivia, Idaville would become a lawless anarchy.


...when he fails to steal a space ship, even aided by no less than three other species of varying degrees of sentience and malice, he recruits a malfunctioning robot and grows a spaceship out of a turnip.

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posted by reyn at 6:54 AM


Terminal Stupidity

The Darwin Awards
by Wendy Northcutt

There's hardly any point at all in describing this book. Unless you've lived in a small, dark hole without electricity or newspapers for the past decade, you already know about the Darwin Awards. Stupid people do amazingly stupid things (often propelled by alcohol, and/or, according to the book, testosterone), and get dead, thereby removing themselves from the gene pool. The only problem is, they're really not doing a very effective job of it. And they're breeding like rabbits. There's even a case study in the book.

Lots of case stduies. Each chapter starts with a philosophical discussion about the awards, when they should be awarded, and what possible motivating factors may lie behind the deeds which earn this dubious honor. Including a reader poll on who in your family (including yourself) is most likely to garner the prize. Then we move through Honorable Mentions, Award winners, Urban Myths, and Personal Accounts in the category headlined by that chapter.

I read it over a period of months, as advised by the first chapter, usually while eating dinner or during commercial breaks. It's hard to take more than a few at a time without running out into the street, handing copies out to passers-by, and telling them it's a how-to manual. If they don't deserve the award, they'll see through the ruse.

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posted by reyn at 6:43 AM