Friday, April 30, 2010

Cannonball Read 2 #33: Heat by Bill Buford

The full title of this book is Heat: An Amateur's Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany. It sounds exciting, but for me it really was not. The writer, Bill Buford, decides--for reasons that are never fully explained--that he wants to be an apprentice to Mario Batali, a famous American chef. Buford takes a job in Batali's kitchen, travels around Italy learning the secrets of butchering, pasta making, and Italian food in general. There is a lot of information on Batali (most of which puts a serious dent in his Disney-fied Food Network image of cheerful sweetheart in goofy shoes--there is much discussion of his drug use, occasional bad temper, and lack of concentration on his business projects once he became famous) which can at least be somewhat amusing.

Maybe I would have enjoyed this book more if I were really into cooking. I bought it for The Boyfriend, and he really enjoyed it. I personally am not interested in reading five straight pages about digging through ancient Italian texts to discover when eggs started being used in pasta dough. I unfortunately do not care. I love pasta as much--or more!--than the next person, but I have no desire to understand its development and history. I just want to cover it in gravy and stuff it in my mouth.

For devoted foodies, this book is probably a great read. For anyone else, if you want to read funny writing about food, I recommend you try Anthony Bourdain instead.


Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Cannonball Read 2 #32: Columbine by Dave Cullen

As anyone who follows this blog knows, I am fascinated by disasters. I know more about shipwrecks, fires, and molasses floods than anyone I know. I love the historical context, the idea that disaster brings out both the best and worst in people. However, I like my disasters in the past--a past where men wear watch fobs and women wear corsets and people travel by buggy--basically, a past so distant to me it might as well be another planet. I am not quite as comfortable when the disaster occurred during my lifetime--for example my review of 1 Dead in Attic, a series of essays written about the disaster of Hurricane Katrina. However, that still seemed pretty foreign--I've never been to Louisiana, and have no real reference as to how that whole thing might feel. Columbine was different.

I was a junior in high school on April 20, 1999. I remember when the news reports of the massacre in Colorado started trickling in--this was in the days before cell phones were everywhere, before texting, Twitter, and Facebook allowed information to pass almost instantaneously across the country. Columbine was not the first school shooting, but up until that time it was the biggest. We heard rumors--there were two shooters! Three! Five! They were a gang of goth misfits striking back at the jocks! There were guns! Bombs! Fires!--and we wondered. Some kids' parents came and took them out of school for the afternoon. The following year, they ran a "disaster drill" to determine police reaction times and school policies (as a member of the drama club, I was there to play "terrified student"--most of us who participated thought that any gunman with half a brain could easily kill significantly more of us than we suspected). One of my friends got hassled by the administration because he looked like a goth and had an attitude problem, a kid in my math class got arrested for having bomb-making materials in his car. This particular disaster actually EFFECTED me, which is why reading about it was so disconcerting and uncomfortable.

Dave Cullen has used his incredible research and interview skills to put together a portrait of the killers based on their own writings, videos, and history. He's interspersed the tale of their plan to kill with the lead-up and aftermath of their deadly spree, interviewing witnesses, police officers, FBI agents, religious leaders, scientists, and psychologists. He tries to lay out all the available facts (so much of what came out as "fact" at the time was merely distortions of distortions passed from one news outlet to the next until the story was universally accepted) and create a timeline of what happened and when. He talks about the reactions of survivors, the struggle the kids of Columbine HS made to return to normal and cope with everything they'd seen. Cullen tracks the police cover-up, trying to document what they knew and when, analyzing whether they might have been able to prevent the tragedy if they'd acted on the information they had. With the help of a friend--a psychologist who worked for the FBI and who happened to be one of the first on-scene because his son was a freshman at Columbine High--the author examines the two boys' history to try and figure out if anyone could have averted this deadly spree.

At the heart of his book, Dave Cullen tries to pin down the most elusive piece of the tragedy: why? What had driven two teenagers from relatively average backgrounds to attempt to kill every one of their peers? Who were Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold really? Were they misunderstood loners? Monsters? Pliable teens driven to a horrific act by Marilyn Manson or video games or violent movies or bullies? Cullen sifts through their journals, their videos, their interactions with friends to try and give us a complete picture of who these two were before they pulled on their trench coats, strapped on their guns, and set out to create havoc and destruction. The author tries to be totally objective, though it's hard not to react to the two boys. Harris was a textbook psychopath: charming, manipulative, deceptive, sadistic, and with a totally out of control sense of superiority. He is clearly the driving force, the villain of the piece, if it must have one. Klebold, on the other hand, seems like more typical teenager--mired in suicidal depression and uncontrollable mood swings, he seems to have been swept into Harris's fantasy world and grasped on to it as a way out. He's still a loathed figure of anger and destruction, but by his own words he's also shown to be confused and pathetic. Sometimes as I read I found myself feeling sorry for him, having to remind myself that he helped kill 13 people and injure more than a dozen more.

The style of the book is as objective as possible, and the author does everything he can to avoid injecting himself or his opinions into the narrative. Judging by the extensive notes and bibliography section, the nine years he spent writing the book were spent researching in great depth. The writing is clear and simple--it does not try to shock, but instead to convey as much information as possible. I was pleased to discover the book has no photos -- that would have been exploitative, in my opinion. On the whole, though I can't say I exactly enjoyed the book, I thought it was worth reading. Dave Cullen did his best to explain what happened and give the possible reasons why. Columbine takes a dark and confusing monster from my generation's past and shines a light on it, exposing it as nothing more than humanity gone awry.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Cannonball Read #31: Dead and Gone by Charlaine Harris

Sookie Stackhouse is back, and boy, do her troubles keep increasing. Now that the weres have come out into the open, things in Bon Temps get more and more bizarre. Her friend Arlene's attachment to the Temple of the Sun reaches its boiling point, and some recently discovered relations of Sookie's are making her life about as complicated as she can stand. Luckily, there's always Eric the Vampire, whose feelings for her are as intense but confusing as her own for him. Danger is on the way--and there is going to be some death in this one.

The plots of these things are just getting more and more ridiculous, but I don't care. I am hooked on them. I love Sookie. I love Eric. I love the varied and entertaining cast of bit players who flesh out the town of Bon Temps and surrounding areas. On the whole, not nearly as good as #4, but one of the more entertaining books in the series, as far as I'm concerned.

Cannonball Read 2 #30: The Gift of Fear by Gavin de Becker

The full title of this book is The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals That Protect Us From Violence. Gavin de Becker is a world-renowned expert on violent behavior, and with this book he explains how we can protect ourselves from violence, no matter what direction it comes to us from.

De Becker's premise is that human intuition is a very powerful tool that modern humans have lost the ability to use effectively. We may feel the pricking of intuition, but we have been trained to ignore "gut feelings" or "hunches" and only believe in things we can see. We've spent our lives learning that we must have a good reason for feeling fear, and that feeling fear at an inappropriate time is rude, or politically incorrect. According to de Becker, if you are afraid or uncomfortable, you probably have a reason to be, and the first step you should take--instead of trying to convince yourself that nothing is wrong--is to try and discover what exactly is bothering you.

In his long career as a consultant, de Becker has worked on a variety of cases, and he shares many examples through the book of times when intuition was either heeded or ignored and the resulting effect. He covers an array of different types of violence--stranger, stalker, acquaintance, domestic abuse--and how to try and avoid them all. In de Becker's opinion, we are all capable of surviving violence, and often can avoid it if we are careful and pay attention to what our intuition tells us.

The book is extremely interesting as well as informative. It was full of examples, anecdotes, and research which made it not just entertaining but also very believable. It's a book I think everyone should read, because it a self-help book of the best kind--actually helpful.

"Fuckin' iguana." : The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans

Yesterday afternoon, just as I started watching this movie, my roommate--Starbucks Queen--arrived home from work and joined me in the living room. "What are you watching?" she asked. "Nicolas Cage movie," I said, "You know I can't resist Nic." "Who can?" she replied.

The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans is the story of Lieutenant Terence McDonagh, an officer with the New Orleans police department. We find out in the first two minutes that he's not a very nice guy to start with, and a debilitating injury does not improve him any. He is completely immoral--shaking down teenagers for drugs, threatening people, and generally behaving like a out-of-control crazy person (lots of that good old fashioned "bug-eyed and screaming" Cage here, of course. Then again, when you're playing a crackhead, maybe that's finally justified?) As he investigates the murder of five Senegalese immigrants, his world begins to unravel at frightening speed. He is juggling as fast as he can, but it's beginning to look like Terence isn't going to be able to keep all the balls in the air.

The film was an "A-List of the B-List" with appearances by Eva Mendes as Terence's girlfriend, Val Kilmer and Shawn Hatosy as his coworkers, Xzibit as a feared drug dealer, Brad Dourif as a bookie, Jennifer Coolidge as Terence's drunken step-mother, Fairuza Balk as a highway officer, and Michael Shannon as a nervous property clerk. All the performances were reasonably decent, though I thought Jennifer Coolidge's was particularly good, since she was playing fiercely against type. Nicolas Cage over-acted as usual, but at the same time his manic shrieking and morose sulking were in character of a man spiraling out-of-control. Also, his hair didn't make me want to cry, which with him is always a victory.

The thing I guess I found most odd were the strange "reptile POV" shots for no reason, or some of the strange choices the director made. I realize that if your main character is whacked out on drugs you can get away with some things (the break dancing dead guy, for one) but the loooooong shot from the POV of a hallucinated iguana? I just don't know.

After the movie was over, SQ looked at me and said "What was the point of that? Was it supposed to be funny? Or dramatic? Or what?" and I said, "It's a Herzog movie. I think it's supposed to be weird." "Well, they succeeded admirably with that, then," she said as she left the room.

I can't say I exactly liked the movie, but it was significantly less terrible than I expected before I watched it.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Cannonball Read 2 #29: Rant: An Oral Biography of Buster Casey by Chuck Palahniuk

I have always enjoyed Chuck Palahniuk's work, so I'm not sure I can really give an objective opinion on this book. Then again, I don't think an objective opinion of his work is really possible--it seems that people either love him or hate him (and most people know which category they fall into before even finishing one of his books.) If his weird, clipped, style that starts out odd and then continues to spiral out into complete insanity is for you (as it is for me) then you are willing to follow him wherever he decides to go. If you're not a fan, his outlandish and in-your-face books are gratuitous and obnoxious and completely nonsensical.

Rant is the tale of Buster Casey--a young man raised in a small town, whose favorite pastimes included sniffing sanitary waste, sticking boogers to his wall, and being bitten by dangerous creatures. He goes on to move to the city, where his behavior starts a snowballing disaster...culminating in a world-wide plague of rabies and city wide quarantines.

The fascinating thing about this work is that it's set up as an oral history--the entire story fashioned out of snippets of "interviews" with people who knew Rant. At the time the book is written, Rant is ostensibly deceased, so we never hear his version of events--only the views of his family, friends, acquaintances, various "experts," philosophers, scientists, and average citizens. It's an interesting way to portray a character--always from the point of view of other people. Plus, it allows a certain amount of leeway as to the events described--most of Palahniuk's books are written in first person, so he's limited to what the narrator sees and knows--here he is at liberty to bring in characters who will know every aspect of a situation.

The plot, once again, begins normally enough and then somehow rockets its way off into a land of intentional car wrecks, murder, and time travel (because, of course, time travel!) For those who prefer their literature to be more "realistic," this book (like all of Palahniuk's work, really) is NOT RECOMMENDED. However, for those whose view of reality has a little more wiggle room, I though this was tremendous.

Cannonball Read 2 #28: The Night Country: A Novel by Stewart O'Nan

The Night Country is narrated by Marco, one of three high school juniors who died in a horrible car crash. Along with Toe and Danielle, Marco has been drifting as invisible ghosts through the small town of Avon, being "called" to those who are thinking of them. They spend most of their time with Brooks, a police officer who was there the night of the accident and has been unable to forget, Tim, their friend who somehow escaped the crash unscathed, and Mrs. Henderson, the mother of their friend Kyle, whose body survived the crash, but whose personality and mental capacity didn't. One year to the day from the tragedy, we--with the three ghosts--watch events spiral out of control.

The book is great, and although not what I call a "ghost story" necessarily, it does have a lot of suspense regarding what the living characters will do, and what--if anything--the ghosts will do to intercede. The tension builds and builds as it becomes obvious what Tim's plan to celebrate the anniversary is. When the ghost of "real Kyle" also shows up--on a different plane, perhaps, than the other three--his motivations are also cause for suspense.

The book is well-written, though I think of it almost more as a YA book than as an adult novel. The only thing really adult about it is the language, and even that is pretty tame. It was well-written, and the characters were fairly well fleshed-out. On the whole, I enjoyed it and would recommend it as a light read.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Cannonball Read 2 #27: The Tommyknockers by Stephen King

I have made clear several times on this blog that I love Stephen King. I cut him a lot of slack--I've found SOMETHING to enjoy in every book of his that I've read...except this one.

It took me three attempts to finally plow my way through The Tommyknockers. The damn thing is SO DULL and almost nothing interesting happens during the first 2/3 of the book (and 2/3 of a book that size is a significant number of pages to wade through.) The main characters did not capture my interest at all, nor did any of the peripheral characters (no, I take that back, I did enjoy the lady sheriff during her brief appearance). The "big reveal" was nothing to write home about. The plot, frankly, was kind of dumb and the ending was...well, let's just say it was a Stephen King ending through and through.

I was not spooked, not entertained, not interested by this book. I would advise avoiding this one.

Cannonball Read 2 #26: The House of Lost Souls by F.G. Cottam

The House of Lost Souls is mostly the story of Paul Seaton, a former journalist turned neurotic wreck. Once, long ago, he went into a house--a house he shouldn't have been in and wished he'd never heard of. Something in that house nearly destroyed him, but now he has to go back. Along with Nick Mason, a tough military man, Paul has to go back to the Fischer house in order to save the souls of three young coeds, including Nick's younger sister.

The story is made up mostly of flashbacks--it is mostly Paul's story, and revolves around the concepts of obsession and satanism. That sounds like a fascinating concept for a book, except this one is...not. The scary, spooky bits are not especially frightening. For a haunted house story, the house is mentioned hardly at all. I found the characters weren't particularly well fleshed-out, and the descriptions were dull at best. Although I didn't necessarily see a few of the final twists coming, I found that by the time I got there, I just didn't care anymore.

On the whole, not a terrible book--well-written, if nothing else--but mostly a major disappointment.