Friday, August 28, 2009

Cannonball Read #49 - 51: The Lord of the Rings Trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien

I am not typically a big fan of fantasy books. I mean, I enjoy them when they happen across my path, but I don't tend to seek them out. This particular set of books I bought on a whim--the three books were being sold in a box set used for about $3. I figured I might as well read them--I greatly enjoyed two of the three movies, and these are my father's favorite books as well. It turned out I was surprised how much I enjoyed these.

The first book, Fellowship of the Ring, starts out very slowly. I was disheartened at first, not sure that I'd be able to slog through the whole thing if it all was as dull as the first few chapters. Luckily, once we got past all the descriptions of Hobbit social structure and Hobbit landscapes, the story began to pick up. Admittedly, nothing of real note actually HAPPENED until nearly 3/4 of the way through, but once the Hobbits got on the road and truly began their adventure, I got sucked in. By the time the Fellowship forms and sets out from the elven palaces at Rivendell, I couldn't put the book down. The second book, The Two Towers, was even better. There was more adventure, more battles, more characters. I loved the Riders of Rohan, and greatly enjoyed the battle of the Ents. There was a lot going on in that book, and it's definitely the best of the three. The third book, Return of the King, was good, but definitely became slightly tiresome as things wound down. Also, the last third of it is "historical footnotes" about the lineage of the kings of Gondor and such (not very thrilling reading.) On the whole, I thought these were great, and will likely read at least the first two again at some point.

Reasons the Books are Better Than the Films:

1. Frodo is significantly less whiny and annoying. Even though I like Elijah Wood and though Sean Astin was perfectly cast as Samwise Gamgee, I tend to fast-forward through the Sam/Frodo parts in The Two Towers movie because I find "fuckin' Frodo" unbearably irritating.

2. Arwen only appears, like, twice. I don't think she even has any lines in the books. She is certainly not having some wild horse chase. Since I hated her character in the film too, I was happy to not run across her much.

3. All of my random and picky questions were answered. I.e. If the 9 rings of power turned the kings of men into Ringwraiths, what happened with the Elves' and Dwarves' rings? (Answer: The Elves were too strong to be corrupted. Half of the Dwarves' rings were taken back by Sauron and the other half were lost.) Or why is Gimli the only Dwarf in the story? Where are all the dwarves? (Answer: Dwarves and Elves don't get along. Also, the dwarves live on the opposite end of Middle-Earth from where all the action takes place.) All those nagging little things that bothered me from the movie were neatly fixed.

4. The poetry is quite beautiful. There are many different poems throughout the stories, usually songs or legends the characters relate, often "translating" from other languages. For obvious reasons, most are left out of the movie.

5. Tom Bombadil. If you don't know, you're just missing out.

Reasons The Film is Better Than the Book:

1. Viggo Mortensen is pretty.

2. Sir Ian McKellan is just too freaking awesome.

3. Some scenes of excitement are added for effect. There are also dialogues that add to the story.

4. Viggo Mortensen is really pretty.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Tidbits

It may be a while until I get my next Cannonball Read done, since I have tasked myself with reading Lord of the Rings. I am more than halfway through Fellowship of the Ring right now, which--after starting off fairly slowly--has become a lot more interesting. (I can see why the Tolkien purists got all pissed off about the movie, though. I love the movies, but they're pretty different.) I figure while you wait I'd collect a few thoughts for your amusement.

1. It took me all of five minutes to realize I was going to hate National Treasure: Book of Secrets, which I subjected myself to on Saturday. I'm pretty sure it shouldn't have taken me that long to hate it, but I like to give things the benefit of the doubt. However, once they screwed up the Lincoln assassination, though, nothing they did was going to be right so it didn't matter. Probably didn't help that the plot was one of the stupidest things I've ever seen committed to film. Did they let Jon Voight write that himself or something?

2. I watched the majority of Sydney White and was far more entertained than I feel I should have been.

3. Happened to catch Steel Magnolias on the WE channel. I don't know why I watch that movie--it always makes me bawl--but I can't pass it by if I see that it's on. I think it's just that I love Dolly Parton and Shirley McClaine. I feel as though lunch with those two would be the most hilarious meal of your life.

4. We are all VERY excited that America's Best Dance Crew is back on TV. I have been driving The Boyfriend nuts with my attempts to pop, lock, dip, tut, and New Jack Swing. (In case you hadn't guessed, I am not going to be qualifying for ABDC any time soon.) Starbucks Queen (our roommate) and I watch the episodes at least twice, and pay very close attention to the critiques. Also to what host L'il Mama is wearing, because sometimes her outfits are totally worth the price of admission (i.e. last season when she showed up for one episode in a bejeweled little hat, looking like a villainous stewardess.) The Boyfriend enjoys it because although it's a reality show, it showcases people for having talent, not just for being douchebags. Speaking of having talent-- Project Runway starts this week! Yaaaaaaay! And speaking of being douchebags...the new cycle of America's Next Top Model should be starting soon as well. Wheee!

5. And now for a new feature I like to call "Bork Bork Bork: Cooking with The Caustic Critic". This time, we're going with The Boyfriend's sister's taco salad, which is strangely delicious.

Dorito Chips (I used Nacho)
1 pkg Taco Seasoning
1 pound hamburger
Head of lettuce
Two tomatoes
Shredded Cheese or a block you can cube up! (I a block of sharp cheddar, but you could Monterrey Jack, too.)
Catalina dressing

A. Fry up the hamburger. Mix in the taco seasoning based on the taco seasoning directions. Allow to completely cool.

B. Cut up the lettuce. Quarter the tomatoes and remove all the seeds then dice into small pieces. Add the cheese. Once the hamburger is completely cooled add to the salad. Once you're ready to serve the salad mix in the Catalina dressing to taste. You can add the Dorito chips right into salad or you can serve it the way we do--take a handful of chips out of the bag, crumble slightly, and put on your plate as a bed for the salad. If you don't mix the chips directly into the main salad, you don't have to worry about the leftovers being full of soggy chips.

6. This whole insane heat-wave thing has got to end. I moved to Boston because I thought being several hundred miles north and near the ocean would mean cooler summers. Apparently I was the stupid one. I am now wondering how much a summer home in Svalbard will cost. I really need to make friends with someone who has a pool if this keeps going on...

7. Is anyone else out there watching True Blood? That show is f-ing crazy! There's always something going down, and usually they throw in a hot shirtless guy to sweeten the deal. Okay, yeah, the main character can be a little annoying, but with all that's been going on around her, who's to say I wouldn't be somewhat annoying in the same circumstances?

8. My therapist disappeared. I hadn't seen her since October, admittedly, but when I called the other day I got a "This phone has been disconnected" message. It kind of freaks me out.

9. I really just don't care about Brett Favre, okay? Would everyone please stop shoving him down my throat for five minutes? He should have retired three years ago--he could have gone out totally beloved and been a HERO in Green Bay. Instead he's this whiny, weepy jackass who can't make up his damn mind. Though who cares about my opinion--as far as football players go, if he's not Wes Welker I really don't care. (He's preeeeeeeeetty...)

Monday, August 17, 2009

Cannonball Read #48: Fade Away by Harlan Coben

Fade Away is another entry in Harlan Coben's Myron Bolitar mystery series. In this episode, sports agent Myron returns to the world of professional basketball in order to locate a missing superstar. Along the way he meets up with bookies, 60s radicals on the run, a semi-pro groupie, and some very unpleasant underworld characters as he tries to solve the mystery of a disappearance and a murder. He also gets serious with his girlfriend Jessica, comes to terms with the end of his basketball career, and finds out a dark secret from his own past.

The book is all right--it's funny and decently plotted. The characters are still very likable. I found the solution to the mystery surprising but not entirely out of left field. The only problem I had was the pacing: I felt that the story moved along almost TOO quickly. It seemed to me that things happened all of a sudden and there were points where things could have been expanded a little. I was somewhat disappointed that we didn't get to spend a little bit more time with particular characters or situation.

On the whole I'd recommend this book to anyone who enjoyed Coben's previous works with this set of characters.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Cannonball Read #47: Batavia's Graveyard: The True Story of the Mad Heretic Who Led History's Bloodiest Mutiny by Mike Dash

Batavia's Graveyard is another entry into my "maritime disasters" series. It is exactly the kind of book I love--one that is full of heroics, nefarious deeds, and an overabundance of historical context.

The story is that of a wreck and mutiny aboard a Dutch transport ship in 1629. The Batavia, hauling a load of treasure to the Dutch interests in southeast Asia, ran aground on a series of atolls just off of Australia. While the head Dutch merchant and the ship's skipper left in a longboat to try and reach help in Java, the other 200+ survivors were left to fend for themselves on a desolate atoll without food or water--and as they were soon to discover, governed by a mad man.

The book mostly focuses on the escapades of Jeronimus Corneliesz, a lower-level merchant who takes the opportunity to use his charming (and psychopathic) nature to dominate and ultimately destroy the majority of the survivors left under his care. With a group of soldiers and sailors who had originally plotted to mutiny and steal the ship's treasure, Corneliesz begins to systematically murder the remaining survivors not allied with him, ostensibly to remove threats to his leadership and strain on the few available supplies. Soon, however, he and his men lose control, murdering and torturing in cold blood as a way to pass the time. Aside from a small group of men who end up stranded on a neighboring atoll, Corneliesz and his men are in complete dominance over everyone. In all, they manage to kill more than one hundred people, including women, children, and even infants. Eventually, however, the head merchant returns with help, and the mutineers are left to face the consequences of their actions.

Mike Dash's book is impeccably researched (and includes more than 100 pages of notes at the back with references and added information) and weaves into the narrative information about the political climate at the time, the ways of Dutch merchants, life aboard a merchant ship, the religious movements that had an effect on Corneliesz, medical science on board ships in the 17th century, and a general overview of life in the time period.

It is a gripping story filled with useful and fascinating information. I would definitely recommend it to any history buff.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Cannonball Read #46: 1 Dead in Attic: After Katrina by Chris Rose

Anyone who has been following this blog at all this year (and thanks to the two of you I know are out there--I definitely appreciate both your readership and your comments) knows that I have been fixated on disasters. Shipwrecks, fires, blizzards, floods--I've been reading about it all...but it's all been historical. In all the reading I'd done until this point, the most recent disaster was probably the Andrea Doria sink, which I believe happened in 1958. I like my disasters in the past, thank you; the older they are, the more comfortable they are to read about. Plus there's all that fascinating and previously unknown historical context to discover. However, I'd come to the decision that maybe these historic disasters were just a bit TOO comfortable. Maybe it was time for me to get uncomfortable. I saw Chris Rose on an episode of Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations reading snippets from this book, and it seemed like something I wanted to read.

1 Dead in Attic is a compilation of columns that Rose wrote for the Times-Picayune in the sixteen months following hurricane Katrina's destruction of New Orleans. As a long-time resident and a newspaper reporter who chose to stay in the city and document the destruction, it is a heartfelt book. Many of the columns focus on the minutiae of life, and how even those tiny, normal moments have become something rare and precious in a city where nothing is normal. From his coverage of the immediate aftermath--riding around the city on his bicycle, crossing paths with other dazed survivors and trying to decode the spray-painted signs on the local buildings--to his opinions on the rebuilding and rebirth of the city he loves, Rose writes from the heart, trying to explain both to locals and to the outside world just what is going on and how to deal with it all.

I felt a little lost with this book, if only because one of things I love about the disaster books I have been reading is--as I mentioned above--the chance to learn about the historical context of the event. The problem here is that I KNOW the historical context because this was only four years ago. I watched this whole mess unfold on my very own television. It was both fascinating and surreal to read about an event I watched happen. On the upside, it gave me a personal perspective on the whole thing I couldn't get from CNN alone.

The book gets very dark, and this makes much more sense when Rose writes toward the end of the book about how he had slipped into a very serious clinical depression during the year following Katrina. He makes this story both intensely personal and universal, trying to combine the tragedy with humor and hope.

On the whole I thought it was good that I read this book, though I would hesitate to recommend it to those who are particularly sensitive. The writing is good, and I couldn't put it down, but after I finished it, I couldn't bear to anything but eat ice cream and watch cartoons for about four hours.

Friday, August 7, 2009

"Screws fall out all the time. The world's an imperfect place.": RIP John Hughes

I wish I had something profound to say about the passing of John Hughes. I tried writing something about how The Breakfast Club changed my life--about the character of Brian Johnson made me feel like someone out there actually understood what my life was about at the time: the nerdiness, the loneliness, the clubs, and the unbearable parental pressure to succeed and be the best. But it's hard to come up with something that will make sense to anyone but me. I can maybe explain why I loved it, but there's no way for me to make you FEEL the way I FEEL. I loved that movie. I wore out two VHS copies in the span of about five years--there were periods in my life when I watched that movie nearly every day, sometimes twice on weekends. I loved each and every character (it cemented my love for vulnerable bad boys, which also changed my life, though perhaps not for the better on that count.) I could recite nearly every single line of dialogue along with the film. Even though I was 14 and it was 1995, the feelings and situations applied to me and my life despite being written more than a decade before.

Although I also have deep affection for many of Hughes's other works, particularly Ferris Bueller's Day Off and Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club was my very very favorite movie from age 14 - 19, and is still among my top-ten all-time faves. I can't believe that Hughes is gone and there will never be another entry from Shermer Illinois. (Hopefully--death to anyone who considers remaking any of his legendary films...the last thing the world needs is S1xt66n Candlez starring Hannah Montana and Zac Efron with a Jonas brother playing Farmer Ted)

Thank you, John Hughes.
Thank you for Anthony Michael Hall in every role he played for you.
Thank you for "Danke Shoen" and "Twist and Shout".
Thank you for Robert Downey Jr. with a bra on his head.
Thank you for Long Duk Dong.
Thank you for Jake Ryan.
Thank you for some of John Candy's best and most heartwarming work.
Thank you for understanding teenage girls.
Thank you for Cameron's father's car.
Thank you for the last ten minutes of Home Alone, which Check Spellingmakes my father giggle like a schoolgirl.
Thank you for the flaming marshmallow on Mr. Wilson's forehead.
Thank you for making my family's Christmas seem not so deranged.
Thank you (sort of) for John Bender.
Thank you for the brain, the athlete, the basketcase, the princess, and the criminal.
Thank you for making being a teenager not suck quite so badly, for letting me know I wasn't the only one.

RIP

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Cannonball Read #45: Odd Hours by Dean Koontz

I really liked the first book in the "Odd Thomas" series. I thought the second one was all right. The third tried my patience a bit...and this fourth one just sucked.

Odd Hours is the continuation of the story of Odd Thomas, a lowly fry cook who sees dead people. This particular story takes place in a pretty coastal town, where a mysterious pregnant woman gets Odd mixed up in a convoluted plot involving a small town sheriff, coyotes that are not coyotes, nuclear weapons (!), the ghost of Frank Sinatra, and a golden retriever. The plot doesn't really make sense at all, and feels almost totally unfinished...I understand the idea is that this is a series, and we are meant to be left anticipating the next book, but you have to tie off at least a FEW plot points. The side characters--usually the most charming part of the Odd Thomas books--are two dimensional at best, or (in the case of the mysterious pregnant woman) infuriatingly annoying. This wouldn't be so bad if Odd himself were likable, but really isn't; Odd Thomas is supposed to be some kind of quirky but mellow oddball who leads kind of a zen lifestyle, but really he spends far too much time whining about how he only owns one style of pants because--boohoo!--it would be too complicated to have to think about more than one style of pants.

I was extremely disappointed in this book, because as I mentioned before, I got a certain amount of enjoyment out of the previous entries in the series. I do NOT recommend this to anyone.