Friday, March 27, 2009

Cannonball Read #19: Sparkling Cyanide by Agatha Christie

As I mentioned while reviewing And Then There Were None, I had no idea Agatha Christie was so GOOD. I kind of thought of her as some cheesy "Masterpiece Theater" dreck that is enjoyed mainly by old British ladies. Turns out I was SO wrong.

Sparkling Cyanide is another murder mystery, which is centered around the alleged suicide of cheerful party-girl Rosemary Barton. Rosemary apparently took cyanide and died in the middle of dinner party. The drama begins when her stodgy husband George begins receiving letters implying that Rosemary didn't kill herself--she was murdered! The storm begins to whirl around the cast of characters: Rosemary's dishwater younger sister Iris, Iris's boyfriend Anthony who isn't who he says he is, Ruth, George's (overly?) devoted secretary, George, and Mr. and Mrs. Farraday, a couple who are dictionary definition of "cold." George starts making inquiries, and then things get REALLY difficult.

The book moves along quickly, hopping back and forth between the characters. There are many clues scattered through the book, but I was still surprised by the ending. Christie does a good job in drawing her characters, as well as setting a scene. In general, it's a fast, easy, entertaining read that I would recommend.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Cannonball Read #18: Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistlestop Cafe by Fannie Flagg

I have seen the film based on this novel (the theme at the moment seems to be books that have been made into films) and I will say that I really like it. I was a little concerned that the book would be more convoluted or more depressing or cheesy or something. Luckily, the book was equally delicious, though in different ways.

The frame of the story is the stories the elderly Mrs. Ninnie Threadgood tells her new friend Evelyn--a bored housewife who comes to the nursing home with her husband to visit his mother. Ninnie weaves for Evelyn the exciting, tragic, and very dramatic tale of the Threadgood family--specifically the story of Idgie, the tomboyish black sheep--and the lives around them during the Depression era in rural Whistlestop, Alabama. As Evelyn hears the story of Idgie, Idgie's best friend (and lover?) Ruth, Smokey Lonesome the hobo, Sipsy--the family's black servant--and her family, and everyone else, it gives Evelyn the strength to face up to her own life and try to change herself. The stories of the two friendships weave through the story, which is arranged in dated chapters, switching between Evelyn and Ninnie, Idgie, and various other characters' viewpoints as well as excerpts from "local newspapers." The story is not nearly as narrow and focused as the film, and in several places characters and story lines were minimized or eliminated entirely from the movie. The book is much less about just the story of Idgie, Ruth, and the Whistlestop Cafe, and more about a place and a time. At the end, there are even several pages of Sipsey's recipes for things like fried chicken and the fried green tomatoes of the title.

I enjoyed the book a lot--it was an easy read, and a welcome break from the deluge of non-fictional disasters I've been wading through lately. It's a heartwarming "chick flick" of a book that men would probably not enjoy but is a great read for a hormonal woman. ;)

Monday, March 23, 2009

Cannonball Read #16 & #17: The Poseidon Adventure & Beyond the Poseidon Adventure by Paul Gallico

I've combined these two books since they are for all intents and purposes a single story, albeit one that takes a very swift turn in the middle.

I have seen the original Poseidon Adventure, Poseidon--the version with Kurt Russell, as well as a few terrible rip-offs. The main idea is the same in each, though there are a variety of causes and specifics. Basically, a giant cruise ship is rolled over into an upside-down nightmare, and a small group of surviving passengers have to journey through the topsy-turvy world in an attempt to make it to the bottom (now top) of the ship where their best chance at rescue lies. The first book is really pretty excellent--there is a decent amount of action, as well as the exploration of human dynamics, and the various ways people respond to crisis. Some, like the Reverend Scott, take charge and lead as though it were something they had been born to do. Others--like Dick Shelby, his family, Mrs. Kinsale the spinster, and the Rosens, an elderly Jewish couple--prefer to be followers. Some, like small haberdasher James Martin, only show their heroic nature when there's no other option. And then there's detective Mike Rogo and his low-class wife Linda, who seem determined to resist authority at every turn. It's a varied group who need to work together in order to survive. They have a number of challenges to face and they lose some of the group along the way. However, they always manage to keep hope alive. There are some big differences from the movie--I imagine they wanted to keep things a little lighter and more optimistic for the viewing public--but on the whole it's close to the film and is a good, engaging read.

The second book, Beyond the Poseidon Adventure was written as a sequel not to the first book, but to the film. The premise is that three of the survivors (Mr. Rosen, Mike Rogo, and James Martin) go back onto the Poseidon to protect the cargo Rogo was guarding on the trip, only to find themselves having to deal with leftover survivors, a noble tug captain and his daughter, a seductive thief, a mysterious American mercenary, and a danger Greek assassin. The action roams through the ship, and involves trickery, love, and even a tiger! The story is a little over the top, and the characters seem a little less natural in this one. It seemed clear to me that this sequel was a bit forced, and lacks the complicated personal dynamics of the first book, leaning more on the action to do the heavy lifting. Still, it was an entertaining way to spend a few hours on a chilly afternoon.

As a note, aside from the tug boat and the Greek assassin, the movie of the same name (starring Sir Michael Caine and Sally Field) bears only the slightest resemblance to the book. It's a very entertaining movie--better, perhaps, than the book--but I didn't want you to be fooled.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Cannonball Read #15: And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie

It seemed amazing to me that I had never read this book. In fact, until I started reading I was pretty sure I had read it at some point, but it turns out that's not actually true. Upon reflection, I realized I had seen a comedic musical based on the book at a dinner theatre years ago with my grandparents. The differences between the book and a (hilarious, admittedly) musical are unsurprisingly numerous. It turned out I'd been missing a FANTASTIC book for years because I believed I'd already read it.

For anyone unfamiliar, the plot is pretty simple: 10 people are invited for a weekend on a remote island. When they arrive, they discover they haven't been invited for a quiet country weekend, but rather to be punished for their perceived crimes against humanity by a mad man. The tough bit is they have no idea who their executioner is. As the guests start dropping dead in a variety of ways, the paranoia and suspicion and tension mount to a final and unexpected conclusion.

I haven't really read any Agatha Christie, and always assumed to be sort of Murder She Wrote cutesy old-lady detective stories, but this book was fucking CREEPY. Even though I was fairly sure I know how it would end, the tension is unbelievable. The way the book is written, coming from the viewpoints of everyone, including the murderer--but without specifying who's who--allows the reader to be caught up in the confusion and fear. Although the characters are not especially detailed (it's a fairly short, quick book which doesn't waste a lot of time on details) the descriptions provided allowed me to get an impression in my head that served me very well. The pace moves along at almost breakneck speed, and I got so wrapped up in the story I actually missed my bus stop on the way home last night and ended up at the end of the line, wondering what the hell happened. On the whole, a fantastic book I highly recommend for anyone who enjoys suspense.

(As a side note, I believe the show I saw based on the book was called "Something's Afoot" [although I can't swear to it] and it was also quite entertaining.)

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Quick Update: Reality TV Ate My Brain

I HAVE been reading, I swear. I have, like, four books I've finished and not blogged about yet because I am a lazy slacker. I promise I will do that soon. I will also watch movies soon for a little variety. Lately I have just been too wrapped up in Tool Academy, Rock of Love Bus, America's Best Dance Crew, America's Next Top Model, and Extreme Makeover: Home Edition to accomplish anything of value. Have you seen these shows? The first three are productions of VH1/MTV, so you can imagine the quality therein. Let me give you a brief overview:



1. Tool Academy is a competition between "toolish" dudes, who were tricked into the process by their girlfriends (the guys were told they were coming to compete in a "Mr. Awesome" competition. Some never quite gave up the idea that if they would just keep at it they'd be crowned Mr. Awesome.) The idea is to teach these lying, cheating, self-absorbed douchebags to be better boyfriends/people. I'm not quite sure about the therapist they used--she's really not up to the Dr. Drew standard...I somehow doubt Dr. Drew would endorse role-playing with sock puppets or using lie-detectors as solid therapeutic methods. On the whole, they met with varying levels of success. Although they made some progress with some of these guys, they never touched on one of the major issues, which is to try and get them to stop LOOKING like tools. I mean, seriously, you should have seen some of these jerks...particularly one who had a haircut ostensibly modeled on an angry cockatoo. Also one who intentionally called himself "Matsuflex." Ridiculous. On the upside, the nice couple actually won, which was a little shocking.



2. Rock of Love Bus is one of the bastard children spawned by VH1's surprise hit Flavor of Love. Basically it's a dating show for a washed up celeb, in this case Bret Michaels of the hair-band Poison. Now, I happen to be a fan of Poison, but sometimes this show just makes me very...hmm, I was going to say "angry" but I think that "nauseated" is really a better word. First of all, I find it slightly bewildering the way Bret tries to play himself off as a southern good ol' boy. He is from Allentown, PA, which is NOT the south. It's not even really Pennsyltucky. It's closer to Philly than anything, really. And that's clearly not the south. Secondly, where do they find these psychotic sluts? And where do the psychotic sluts buy their clothes? I mean, these are not outfits you can find in your local Macy's. One had a dress that was basically three strips of tinfoil that seemed to be glued together at the crotch...where do you BUY something like that? Even more frightening is the fact that half these women have CHILDREN. And yet they have chosen to put on their giant Lucite stripper heels and 32lbs of makeup and giant fake boobs and hop in a bus to travel across the country waving their hoo-has at a guy with fake hair? (Despite my seeming disgust, The Roommate and I TOTALLY dig this show. We sit on the edge of our seats, waiting for someone to pull someone's weave or throw something or spit on somebody. Last week, we actually were jumping around and hollering when one skanky sexbot threw an entire jar of salsa into another's suitcase. Where are we going and why are we in this handbasket indeed.)



3. America's Best Dance Crew is a straight up competition, and it's actually really interesting and entertaining. The stunts some of these crews pulled off were CRAZY. The Boyfriend enjoys shows like this wherein the contestants actually have to ACCOMPLISH something. Unfortunately, this show infected me with a horrible case of Kanye West earworm, which I can't seem to shake. The Roommate suggests the only cure is tequila, but I'm still hoping it'll go away by itself if I keep inundating it with Poison. Love lockdown, lockdown...Damn You, Kanye!

4. If you are unfamiliar with America's Next Top Model, you have probably been living under a rock for the past several years. That's okay, let me explain: It is supposedly a modeling competition, except half the girls are fundamentally ineligible to be real, successful models, the photo-shoots and challenges are a joke, and it's mostly a vehicle for Tyra Banks's unbelievably ginormous ego. Once again, there's a lot of fighting and crying, and since most of the girls are not terribly bright, they often come out with some verbal gaffes that have me falling off my chair. If you can handle the multiple occasions that are simply opportunities for Tyra to talk about Tyra and Tyra's career and Tyra's mom and Tyra's Sports Illustrated cover and Tyra's experiences as a young model and Tyra's hardships and Tyra's talk show (I usually deal with these via the magic of DVR fast-forward) the show can be totally hilarious. Plus, I'm a mean person and I kind of enjoy seeing pretty girls have their dreams crushed. There. I said it.

5. Extreme Makeover: Home Edition is really the only one of these shows that has any redeeming social value whatsoever. Basically, the team of designers (captained by the hyper-active but oddly endearing Ty Pennington) seek out nice people who have very hard-luck stories and then build them a new house. Some examples I've seen include a police officer who was shot and paralyzed in the line of duty receiving a house that was accessible to her, an Army medic who lost his leg in Iraq (but continues to train field medics) getting a home accessible for him, and numerous very lovely people with very sick children getting house that can accommodate them better. It's just kind of a great show to watch when you're starting to feel like the entire world is populated solely with assholes...yes, you'll probably cry (they shovel on the sentiment pretty hot and heavy) but in the end they do some really spectacular stuff for people who really need it. Plus, the houses are craaaaaaaazy awesome usually.

All right, this has all been sort of embarrassing. I really will update soon with something much more intellectual, I SWEAR.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Cannonball Read #14: Lusitania: An Epic Tragedy by Diana Preston

Hang on, folks. I promise you I'm almost done with non-fiction maritime disasters...actually, I AM done with the reading, but I'm just a little behind on the blogging.

Lusitania: An Epic Tragedy details the sinking of the British passenger ship Lusitania by German torpedo during WWI. The great thing is, the author gets very deep into the contextual circumstances surrounding the sinking, particularly the political climate at the time and use of (at the time) newly-emerging submarine technology. I will admit that I know next to nothing about WWI--in public school social studies, it's that short chapter smushed in between the Civil War and WWII...as I remember it, "somebody assassinated somebody else's archduke for some reason and then Germany got all crazy, and then eventually we won. Somehow the British were involved, the French not so much. The helmets looked like plates." Although the book is focused on the actual attack on and sinking of the Lusitania, Preston continues on to explain how the event was viewed on both sides of the conflict, and how both tried to spin the tragedy to their benefit and get the US to officially choose a side.

The book is obviously well-researched, and for the most part compelling, although the story doesn't end so much as dribble out for 50 pages. There were many characters to keep track of, which I found difficult at some points, but there are some excellent primary accounts as well as a number of helpful photographs, maps, and diagrams.

The book is rather heavy reading, but anyone who is interested in the history of the period, it's pretty excellent.