Thursday, May 26, 2011

CR3 #44: Kaboom by Matthew Gallagher

(Please excuse any mistakes in military terminology--I am woefully ignorant when it comes to the differences between squads and platoons, or which rank is higher. Therefore, I am going to try and use generic terms whenever possible.)

Matt Gallagher's Kaboom has a lot in common with Evan Wright's book Generation Kill. They are both stories that involve a small, young, tightly-knit military group trying to stay alive in Iraq. However, there are also many differences.

1. Generation Kill is a story about a group of Marines who are one of the first groups to enter Iraq. They face the difficulties of overthrowing the current regime and figuring out exactly who the enemy are. Gallagher's group is Army, and they are there in 2007 - 2009, doing more of the clean-up and maintenance work. The Marines spend their time driving around hostile countryside throughout Iraq, constantly meeting with enemy fire. Gallagher's group are for the most part stationed in one city, and spend their time investigating reported insurgent activities, trying to assist in the training and organization of the new Iraqi army, the Iraqi police force, and the other quasi-military groups which are supposed to be taking over the country's security, and interacting with the general populace. Gallagher has more direct contact with Iraqi civilians, and spends more time discussing what life is like in Iraq. He and his men spend a lot of time trying to figure out just who is on their side and who is not...or where the lines are even drawn.

2. Matt Gallagher was a lieutenant (and then captain) in the Army when this book was written. All of his experiences are filtered through his own lens, since this book was originally his own personal blog. It is mainly a first-person story, with himself as the main character. Although his writing shows a certain amount of talent, it's often florid and overwrought. Some of his "stream-of-consciousness" sections are completely unintelligible. In his favor, this makes everything about the book a little more raw--you don't feel he is necessarily editing, holding back, or even THINKING about the things he is saying before he puts them on the page. There is a great sense of immediacy to the whole thing, like he is someone you know writing you a letter about what is going on with him. On the other hand, Evan Wright was an embedded journalist, so his writing is much more professional. He tries to include facts as much as possible, and although he closely identifies with the men he is shadowing, he knows he is not really one of them, and keeps some small, objective distance. His writing is considerably better, with much much less tendency to rant, ramble, or use unnecessarily flowery descriptions.

3. Because Gallagher is looking at the ongoing Iraq conflict from a point of view several years behind Wright, he has more opportunity to go into "Where is it all going/what does it all mean?" When Generation Kill was written, it was expected that the war in Iraq would be over in a year, maybe two. By the time Kaboom was written, it had been going for nearly half a decade, with no evidence that it would be over any time soon. When Gallagher discusses the problems they have dealing with the locals, often finding themselves caught between the needs of the people they are supposed to be helping and the directives of the "higher ups," he takes more time to discuss what the situation in Iraq is really about as far as he can tell. He shows examples of the problems of dealing with people who have been oppressed for so long that are not sure how to be free. Or people whose attitude is "Thanks for freeing us--now how are we supposed to survive?"

4. Both books have a lot of humor. Generation Kill's comes mostly from the men in Wright's group, but in Kaboom, there is also a lot of humor to be found in the interactions with the Iraqi locals. Gallagher's group, due to the nature of their work, spends a lot of time visiting the local sheiks and dealing with their personal guard squads (who have mostly been contracted by the US as part of local security). They are also often in the company of the interpreters, many of whom offer a unique perspective as non-Iraqi middle-easterners.

5. On a completely irrelevant note, Gallagher seems like kind of a self-important jerk, and Evan Wright seemed a lot more pleasant. I don't know if that's writing style or portrayal of truth, but I don't think I'd like Matt Gallagher much were I to meet him in person. He talks a lot about how he was a complete slacker before joining up, and spends a lot of time implying how above-it-all he is. He's very cynical, and sometimes snarky in a slightly unpleasant way.

On the whole, this is not a bad book, but I don't feel it's one of the most informative books one could read. Although it's interesting to get a view of what is going on in Iraq now that the US is entering a draw-down phase, it's really just one man's view on his service, and that one man seems like kind of a dick.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

CR3 #43: Velocity by Dean Koontz

I wish I enjoyed Dean Koontz's books as much as I want to. They've got most of the elements that I usually enjoy in books: murder mysteries, characters making tough choices, sometimes some supernatural stuff is involved. His writing is tidy and the plots are tied together relatively coherently. I guess my issue is that his work is...workmanlike. Stephen King's books might be over-wordy and the endings are almost universally stupid, but his writing seems to have more passion--his characters seem to have more life. You could say that--in my opinion, anyway--Dean Koontz's books follow the letter of the law, but not the spirit.

In Velocity, we find (seemingly) average bartender Billy Wiles faced with a choice: Someone has left a note on his car, saying that if he contacts the police, an elderly woman heavily involved with charity will die, and if he does nothing, a young red-headed school teacher will die. Billy is a person who normally keeps to himself and tries to get through life as quietly as possible. He is forced to get involved when the killer continues to press him for choices, and begins to make threats toward those Billy cares about, including his girlfriend, who is in a coma (I know, I know, it's serious) and those who work at the bar with him.

This book was competent, and I developed an interest in Billy and his misadventures, but I was never on the edge of my seat about the whole thing. I enjoyed reading it, but it's not like I couldn't put it down. Plus, the ending was one of those dopey endings the reader can't see coming because there is no logical evidence anywhere else that would lead to that particular conclusion.

On the whole, this wasn't a bad book, exactly, but I wouldn't necessarily recommend anyone seek it out.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

CR3 #42: The Walking Dead 1 - 11 by Robert Kirkman

I've been trying to figure out if these are worthy of being part of the Cannonball Read, and have finally decided that putting them all together as one entry is probably okay. And if it's not okay, who exactly is going to stop me?

So I'd heard of The Walking Dead graphic novels before the show debuted on AMC. One of The Boyfriend's co-workers happens to be an avid comic fan, and one evening when we were all out, I asked if it might be possible to borrow the books from him. The next day, issues 1 - 4 arrived.

The beginning of this reminds me very much of the beginning of the movie 28 Days Later, in that it is one man (in this case, police officer Rick Grimes) waking up in a deserted hospital and staggering outside to discover that the entire world has fallen apart while he's been unconscious. He's not sure where his wife and young son have gone, and also...it turns out that the dead have risen to walk the earth.

The books follow Rick and his journey, first to find his wife and son and then--as he collects a small band of survivors--to look for a safe place to settle down. The first several books are pretty good, though there are a lot of characters, and at times it can be a little confusing. Also, Rick's wife is a gigantic whining pain in the ass. The drawings are really very cinematic, which definitely adds to the tone of the whole set. However, as things go along, the plot becomes very melodramatic...most of which doesn't even have to do with the zombies. By book 9 I was turning every other page and muttering "Really? REALLY? So that's where we're going with this?" I think that while one one hand it was great to have this epic and continuing story unfolding, on the other hand it takes a lot to fill 11 books, and toward end it was getting ridiculous.

On the whole, I'd recommend this to fans of zombie lit or graphic novels, since it is extremely well-drawn, and does have some great moments. Unfortunately, I don't think it would be very good for an introduction to either genre.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

I pity the fog!: The A-Team and The Fog

So I thought it might be nice to take a break from my never-ending onslaught of book reviews to talk about some movies I watched recently. Yes, I know, it's just yet more "What did the Caustic Critic think about things?" but since this is a blog, and therefore nearly the pinnacle of self-involvement anyway...I figured it would be okay.

Last weekend was gross and wet for the most part, so I had plenty of time to sit on my butt and watch movies. I FINALLY got to two of the three Netflix movies that have been sitting on the TV table for about a month (whimpering "Watch us! Watch us!" as they collected dust).

First off, I watched the new film version of The A-Team. I figured it would be right up my alley, seeing as I love movies that are made up almost entirely of wisecracks and inexplicable explosions. Mind you, I've only ever watched about 3/4 of one original A-Team episode, so I wasn't really bringing in any prior baggage. But I had some questions:
  • Liam Neeson, what are you doing in this film? Were you so deranged by grief at the loss of your wife that you accepted this without looking at it closely? Did you just need something sort of mindless to do as a version of a vacation? Because you are a very very good actor, and you were WASTED here.
  • Why is Hollywood trying to sell me Bradley Cooper as a "hot guy"? I know he's kind of funny, and I thought The Hangover was an okay movie, but this guy is NOT Brad Pitt, nor will he ever BE Brad Pitt. He looks like an emu, all right? (If you don't believe me, google it. You'll understand soon enough.)
  • Jessica Biel: see #2 re: Bradley Cooper, and replace "Brad Pitt" with some Hollywood star like Sandra Bullock or Angelina Jolie or...anyone who has more than one facial expression, really.
  • Why wasn't the crazy guy crazier? The guy who played the crazy guy in the TV show packed more crazy into the 30 minutes I saw than this guy put into the whole movie. I was very disappointed at the lack of sock puppets.

To be fair, here are an equal number of things I enjoyed:
  • I know it is totally stupid and not real and physically impossible, but that bit where they parachute out of the sky in a tank while shooting down drones was pretty awesome. Also the big explosions at the end were cool.
  • The bumbling bad guys were kind of funny. Actually, there were quite a few funny bits.
  • Even though he clearly did not belong in the movie, Liam Neeson of course did an excellent job.
  • The plot made at least a minimum of sense. It wasn't one of those films where you can't even follow because the whole thing is so convoluted and dumb.
So in conclusion, I wouldn't exactly recommend The A-Team, but it's not a complete waste of time.

The other movie I watched was John Carpenter's 1980 version of The Fog. Now THAT was a surprisingly good film. It's amazing how many scares you can get out of fog and things moving that shouldn't. The set up was great, the acting was very good--particularly Hal Holbrook and Adrienne Barbeau. The plot was perfectly reasonable and made sense in the context. The people behaved in realistic ways for the most part, though as an audience member you find yourself yelling at them to pool their knowledge, since if the three or four people who each partly figured out what was going on got together, they'd have it solved in no time. Another great thing about this movie is that the cinematography is really impressive. The way the movie is shot contributes a lot to the tone and the way the whole thing feels. I haven't seen the 2005 remake, and I suspect that it won't be nearly as good...they'll overuse the CGI and fuck the whole thing up, I bet. Anyway, if you haven't seen The Fog, you should, particularly if you like scary movies but don't like gore.

CR3 #41: When the Women Come Out to Dance by Elmore Leonard

If it weren't for Timothy Olyphant, I never would have picked up this book.

Let me clarify: I started watching Justified on FX because Timothy Olyphant is basically sex on a stick. It turned out the show is actually pretty awesome, and not JUST because of Olyphantastic, there. It's a well-written show with some truly fascinating characters, set in an unfamiliar but richly detailed world.

I noticed recently while watching a note saying the show was "Based on the short story 'Fire in the Hole' by Elmore Leonard." I figured that since I enjoy the show so much, I should give the source material a chance.

Lucky me!

This collection of short stories by Elmore Leonard is exactly what a short collection should be: each piece is a small, detailed, stand-alone world. The characters, though briefly sketched, definitely come alive. We find the first run-in between Marshall Raylan Givens and his childhood friend and current target Boyd Crowder (basically the pilot episode of Justified, with a slightly different ending). There's a run-in between Karen Sisco (played on the big screen by Jennifer Lopez in Out of Sight) and a new boyfriend. There are other stories, nearly all of which could easily be expanded into films or TV shows. Leonard's writing is interesting, funny, and to the point. Most of the stories are set in the west, either in the past or modern times.

I often have trouble with short stories, because they either are too short and I find them unfulfilling, or they are trying too hard to be "artistic" and miss out on being GOOD STORIES. Leonard has avoided both of those pitfalls--although I would have been happy to follow almost all of these characters beyond their stories, each story was put together in such a way that I didn't feel I was being shortchanged when the end came.

I highly recommend this to anyone who enjoys well-written short stories, or to anyone who likes old-school stories of the American west.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

CR3 #40: Sweet and Deadly by Charlaine Harris

Six months ago, Catherine Linton's parents both died in a suspicious car accident, leaving 23-year-old Catherine to fend for herself in her small hometown. After she has finally gotten her life back together (more or less) she goes out to do some target shooting one morning and finds a horribly mutilated dead body. Things go downhill from there. There follows another dead body, some romance, some intrigue, and the usual mystery story tropes.

This is Charlaine Harris's first published novel, and although it's definitely not up to her later work, you can see where she is headed. The small town, the quirky heroine, the budding romance--all of these are things that will show up later in her other series. The character of Catherine most closely resembles Ro Teagarden, in that she is nothing more than a petite and often frightened woman. However, she uses her brains to solve the murders and catch the perpetrator. However, she can be just a tiny bit too nervous and whiny for my taste. The side characters aren't bad, though it seems Harris hadn't yet developed her knack for interesting secondary characters yet.

This isn't a bad book if you like this kind of mystery story, but it's nothing I'd recommend vigorously.

Monday, May 16, 2011

CR3 #39: Eight Cousins by Louisa May Alcott

Eight Cousins is a fairly typical Alcott tale. It touches on her themes of teaching good behavior by example, sacrificing for others, and not over-taxing children's minds while neglecting their bodies and spirits.

Rose is a twelve year old whose invalid father recently passed away. Since her mother died when she was very young, the young girl is sent to live with her elderly aunts under the care of her Uncle Alec. Rose is weak and ill, having spent many years tending her father and living without the companionship of people her own age. Uncle Alec thinks that the best thing to do with Rose is to build up her constitution with exercise, fun, and frolic. In this, he engages the assistance of Rose's seven male cousins who live nearby. The story takes place during her first year at "Aunt Hill," and covers all the little adventures of the group.

There are some bits that can be rather patronizing and preachy. Although I think Alcott's basic philosophy about how children should be treated is just as sound today as it was back when she wrote the novel, she can sometimes become too emphatic. The part where everyone acted like Rose getting her ears pierced was akin to her worshipping Satan was particularly annoying. Also, some of the characters have a tendency to be too good to be true. Maybe things were different then, but I just can't see teenage boys behaving the way the cousins do very often. However, this is mostly a very sweet book and excellent reading for children.

Friday, May 13, 2011

CR3 #38: City on Fire by Bill Minutaglio

Nearly every book I've read about disasters has had a common theme: They were probably preventable. Most of the non-natural disasters were directly caused (or at the very least helped along) by greed, negligence, or a combination of the two. Cutting corners to save money or time has been the cause of an untold number of deaths in our nation's history. And yet very rarely is anyone at the top ever punished--on occasion, a lower-level middle management type will end up as a scapegoat for whatever happened, but almost never does anyone who actually made the decisions wind up taking the heat. I thought I had almost reached a point where I could no longer be surprised.

Well, I was wrong. City on Fire: The Forgotten Disaster That Devastated a Town and Ignited a Landmark Legal Battle is the worst of the worst. It is both the worst disaster I think I have read about thus far AND the worst example of the danger of corporate (and governmental) greed and neglect I have encountered. This book made me want to puke--first from the descriptions of the injuries suffered by the people of Texas City, Texas, and then from the way they were treated by the people directly responsible for the disaster...their own government.

In 1947, Texas City was a booming coastal town. It was almost entirely made of huge chemical plants and smelting factories, and the harbor was the door all those chemicals exited to be distributed around the world. The most dangerous of all the substances that flowed through the little Texas town was ammonium nitrate. During WWII, the US government discovered the dual benefit of this compound--on one hand, it is a very powerful fertilizer. On the other, it is a lethal explosive. After the war was over, the US government--in an attempt to win over the people of Europe by providing them with a means to grow food--boosted the production and shipping of ammonium nitrate. Unfortunately, as in nearly every case I've read about so far, safety was pushed aside in favor of speed and low cost. One day in April of 1947, a ship carrying a large load of ammonium nitrate caught fire while docked. Despite the best efforts of the town's fire crew (left without a fire boat because they couldn't afford one--the huge companies that worked in Texas City had managed to avoid paying the city any taxes, so the town was nearly broke) the ship exploded, leveling half of the town. Another ship--also full of ammonium nitrate--also exploded, destroying the little that remained surrounding the harbor. Planes were knocked out of the sky, and the effects of the explosion were felt more than 150 miles away. The explosion was similar to the one that occurred in Halifax harbor in 1917, except in this case the survivors had to contend with the continued explosions and raging fires of the chemical plants--and water so full of toxins it couldn't be used on the fires for fear of making the worse.

Minutaglio begins his book by introducing the reader to several main characters--Bill Roach, an idealistic priest, Curtis Trehan, the young mayor of Texas City, Elizabeth Dalehite, the wife of a local sea captain, Ceary Johnson, an African-American longshoreman, and Walter Sandberg, a chemical company executive, as well as high school students, homemakers, and dock workers. He sets up the scene in Texas City, where "The Company" controls everything, and the poor African American and Latino populations live in slums. Then, he takes the reader through the explosion, giving the perspectives of each person. He continues on to the aftermath of the disaster, and then spends a relatively short time on the legal aspect of what happened--survivors of the disaster were the first US citizens to bring a class-action lawsuit against the United States government.

The descriptions of the explosion and its effects were gory and horrific. I definitely found myself feeling a little faint in one or two places, simply due to the graphic descriptions. The author has done a great job researching and making the reader feel like he or she is right in the middle of the story, suffering along with the people we've gotten to know in the early chapters. He details their struggles, and goes on to finish with a short epilogue to let you know their fates.

This is an amazing book, showcasing another piece of barely acknowledged American history. I had never heard about this until I stumbled across an article on it in Wikipedia, and was shocked that the largest industrial disaster on American soil could have been almost entirely forgotten. It is simply mind-boggling, and I think that everyone should read Minutaglio's book.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

CR3 #37: Dead Reckoning by Charlaine Harris

Dead Reckoning is the eleventh book in Charlaine Harris's Southern Vampire (aka True Blood) series. I pre-ordered it as soon as the option existed, and it arrived last week, much to my delight.

Did any of you see the third Pirates of the Caribbean movie? If you did, maybe you'll understand my feelings about this book. I LIKED the first PotC movie a lot, and I liked the second one quite a bit, too. I was invested in what was going to happen to the characters I cared about. The third movie had bits that I really really enjoyed. I got to find out the continuing story of Jack Sparrow and Elizabeth Swann. However, the plot was a complete disaster, and it was as if the writer accepted some kind of dare to wedge in as many old AND new characters as possible. Even though I mostly enjoyed it, the whole thing was a sloppy, wildly overdone wreck, saved only by the main characters' sheer presence, the exit of several unpleasant and/or boring characters, and by the fact that the set-up for the sequel leaves openings for some really exciting stuff to happen.

In case you're wondering, that's exactly how I felt about Dead Reckoning. If you follow the series, the obviously you must read this. But under no circumstances should anyone attempt to read this as a stand-alone book. It'd simply be impossible.

Friday, May 6, 2011

CR3 #36: American Gods by Neil Gaiman

There is something about Neil Gaiman's style that I really really enjoy. His work is fantasy, and it's often got some dark humor to it, but it's neither obnoxious nor unbelievable.

The main idea of American Gods is that when people came to the United States, they all brought versions of their own native gods (or legends, or mythological beings) with them. As time went on, however, the people began to stop worshipping--or forget entirely about--those ancient gods (for example the Norse god Odin, Mad Sweeney from Ireland, the Zorya from Russia, or the ancient Egyptian gods). The gods were left to try and fend for themselves as personified, but still magical beings. Even worse, they now much compete with the modern gods of Media, the Internet, and the other things that Americans tend to worship. The main character of the story is Shadow, an ex-con who suffers a tragic event and then finds himself mixed up with the mysterious Mr. Wednesday. Mr. Wednesday is preparing for an epic battle, and needs Shadow's help.

The story is great, and I really enjoy trying to figure which gods were which. Gaiman often alludes to history, literature, world religions, and pop culture, and I love stories where an author will allow his readers to draw their own conclusions instead of banging them over the head with every reference. In addition, Shadow is a very sympathetic character, and I found myself really rooting for him no matter what happened. Actually, I was very disappointed when the book ended, because could happily have read another several hundred pages about him.

I would definitely recommend this book to anyone who enjoys fantasy, or even just a really good, very smart story.