What's on your summer reading list: entertaining beach reads or something more ambitious?

What's on your summer reading list: entertaining beach reads or something more ambitious?

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Meet Nina


If you enjoy jazz, biographical documentaries, or both, you might want to check out What Happened, Miss Simone?, a documentary about the great jazz vocalist Nina Simone.  It was produced by Netflix and is now available to stream on that service (I'm not sure if Netflix is also making a disc version available).

Simone was a fascinating figure, with many personal and professional ups and downs during her long career (refreshingly, despite much high drama in her life, Simone didn't die young from alcohol or drug abuse, though there seems to have been some of both in her life).  Though the diagnosis didn't exist then, experts speculate today that Simone was probably also bi-polar, often making the demands of her profession especially hard to bear.

The most interesting part of the documentary, which runs an hour and forty-five minutes or so, is when we see Simone's activities during the civil rights era, where she stopped performing the kinds of songs people wanted to hear and instead wrote and sang some very visceral civil rights anthems.  These anthems became hits, too, though Simone's career wasn't as lucrative during that period.

There's a nice balance of biographical material and music during the documentary, and you'll get a good sense of Simone's vocal talent, which was warm but offbeat, moving yet always a little agitated. And she was a terrific pianist, too, her playing displaying the same depth and complexity as her singing.

Anyway, decent documentary, and Netflix should be commended for producing it.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Breaking out in the regimented 50's


I picked up Patricia Highsmith's The Price of Salt on my Kindle because of all the praise the film Carol, an adaptation of the novel, received at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival. Feeling a little impatient that I'd have to wait several months for the general release of the film, I figured in the meantime I could at least grab up the book that provided the source material. And, in the end, I'm glad I did, as it was a thoughtful and enjoyable reading experience. Here are a few quick observations:

While the book ultimately is a lesbian love story, it takes its time with this aspect, with the first two-thirds of the book basically describing an intense friendship. Interestingly, this was probably due to the 1950's setting. I'm wondering if many lesbians during that period didn't even realize they were lesbians at first, because there wasn't yet an easily recognizable social structure in place that included gay and lesbian relationships as a perfectly respectable category to place oneself.

I liked the fact that Highsmith, who was a very popular writer of hard-edged thrillers at the time (Strangers on a Train, The Talented Mr. Ripley) didn't work too hard to convince us to like the sophisticated, often aloof Carol character as much as young Therese does. It was enough for the author to credibly and believably show us that Therese did so.

I also liked that the young Therese, even as she was experiencing a new sexual awakening as the story progressed, still maintained affection, and some attraction, for some of the young men in her sphere. In doing that, the book intelligently demonstrated that life can be messy and complex at times. Therese was discovering herself, yes, but it didn't mean all her past feelings were misguided or a lie.

Though not intended as such when it was written, the book also functions as a fascinating little time capsule about life in the 1950's. It was fun to read about how people of various social standings lived, worked, and played in 1950's New York City and its environs. And during Carol and Therese's road trip, we get to see 1950's life in other parts of the country, as well. You'll probably smile at how involved it was to make or receive a long-distance phone call back then!

Some parts of the book were a little poetic and abstract for my taste, though others might like them. For instance, Therese gains an intense insight about Carol when she views an old painting in a library, a stodgy posed portrait depicting someone who coincidentally looks very much like Carol. I'm still not sure what the insight was, or why an old painting would induce it, but it was a very big deal for Therese when it occurred. Perhaps someone can enlighten me on what that was all about. Thankfully, for me at least, these abstract, vaguely-described moments don't overwhelm the book by any means.

Several times during the book, I came up with my own motivations for the characters' actions, sometimes quite different from the ones Highsmith relates to us. This was probably due to the nicely complex characters and situations. For example, near the end, Therese feels estranged from Carol and goes to a cocktail party with her theatre colleagues. There she meets a famous stage actress and there's an obvious mutual attraction. Therese weighs things for a moment and then rejects the attraction to the actress, because, as related by Highsmith, Therese realized it would be no more than a superficial relationship if she pursued it, and realizes she'd rather salvage the deep and meaningful relationship she had with Carol. That was fine, but I also came up with this: Therese had put distance between herself and Carol because she was in part trying to distance herself from her inconvenient discoveries about her sexuality, but when that sexuality reared itself up again when she found herself attracted to the actress, she probably admitted to herself that her attraction to women would now always be an overt part of her, so she might as well go back to the one woman she really cared about and embrace the whole thing. Anyway, that was a take that occurred to me.

I'll stop now, as there are plenty of other reviews out there (at Amazon alone) if more details and opinions about this interesting little book are desired. I'll just add that I'm very glad I read this off-the-beaten-track novel (an off-the-beaten track novel for me, anyway, as you can see from the types of books I usually review at this site) and that I'm looking forward to the film even more now.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

More signs of the times


A sign that I spotted in the window of a neighbor's house:

Beware of dog.  The cat is not trustworthy, either.

A sign seen in front of a popular burger joint:

Eat here. Fat people are harder to kidnap.

Seen on a chalkboard in front of a small local business:

Sex sells.  Unfortunately, we sell coffee.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Humanity's swan song


Written back in the mid-1980's, Robert R. McCammon's Swan Song is a big ol' apocalyptic thriller in the vein of Stephen King's The Stand.  It has a lot to offer and I'm glad I finally got to it.  The apocalypse here is the thing that everyone was afraid of back then (and probably should still be afraid of today): nuclear war with the Russians.

The first large chunk of the book very effectively dramatizes the lead up and eventual launch of the missiles.  All scary stuff.  The huge middle section follows a bunch of survivors as they try to continue being survivors in the immediate aftermath of the nuclear exchange.  For many of the characters, it's not immediately clear if they're going to be good characters or bad characters in the wake of the war, which is a plus.  And soon things become even more interesting when magic and the supernatural are thrown into the mix. The last part of the book covers the clash of very different interests to decide who will chart the course of the remnants of humanity.

In some ways the book feels like a watered down The Stand, doing what The Stand did but in less ambitious ways.  But in other ways it is very much its own thing, like in the way the story uses its supernatural elements to 1) develop and deliver an ecological message (that only rarely gets preachy), and 2) fuel an almost dreamlike plot development that results in many of the characters ultimately developing a new outward appearance based on their true inner beauty or ugliness, via a weird skin condition dubbed Jacob's Mask.  That part of the book reminded me of the first Captain America movie, where the super soldier formula made Steve Rogers fit, healthy, and handsome, while it made the Red Skull look like, well, the Red Skull.  But Swan Song did that sort of thing first!

Swan Song is a long book and audiobook (I experienced the book on audio, via a fairly new production offered by Audible.com), but I think most people who are into these types of epic stories that combine gritty realism with fantasy elements will find it enjoyable and worth their time.  I certainly enjoyed it well enough.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Revisiting a classic


It was a lot of fun to re-read, after many years, Isaac Asimov's Foundation, the first book of the classic Foundation trilogy (prequels and sequels to the trilogy, some already reviewed on this site, were added in subsequent years).  Once again, it was cool to read about a planet of scientists secretly working to alter events around the galaxy to avert, or at least substantially reduce, the 30,000 years of universal barbarism that their "psychohistorical" equations have predicted will occur if nothing is done.

What's also fun about the book is that we soon see that the scientists really aren't up to the task, so it falls to the Foundation planet's politicians and traders- with their earthier political skills- to interpret and implement the scientific data and act accordingly.  The bulk of the book then consists of a series of episodes where moves, counter moves, and Machiavellian undercurrents all work together to minimize galactic warfare and chaos, and to keep the generally defenseless Foundation planet safe and independent so its work can continue.

More than half a century old, Foundation remains thoughtful, smart, and entertaining, making it not surprising that HBO is currently developing a weekly drama based on the books.

"Foundation" is available in print, Kindle, and audio editions.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Quarry is back


If there's such a thing as a likable hitman, it's Quarry, and he has a good working relationship (in this story, anyway) with his boss, known only as the Broker.  When the Broker survives an attempt on his life (thanks to Quarry's quick action), he dispatches Quarry in the general direction he believes the hit order originated, wanting Quarry to smoke out whoever ordered the hit.  And thus, Max Allan Collins' terrific Quarry's Choice gets underway.

Quarry is soon enmeshed in the world of sleazy and semi-legal casinos, pretending to be a criminal/gunman looking for work, all the while secretly looking into who ordered the Broker hit.  While Quarry is doing this, the reader is treated to lots of gangster action and sex, all set among the neon glitz of the post-Vietnam era southern Bayou.

Quarry's Choice, the latest in a long series of Quarry novels (you can read them in any order) is- like the other installments- a gritty, down-and-dirty page turner, but not without a sense of humor.  I get the sense that Max Allan Collins has a lot of fun writing these books, as I certainly have a lot of fun reading them.

Oh, yes- the cable network Cinemax is now producing a weekly series based on the Quarry novels.  I bet it'll be good.  But do yourself a favor and read one or two of the original novels before watching the show, as it's always good to familiarize yourself with an author's original vision before seeing what others do with it.  In fact, Quarry's Choice, which is set near the beginning of Quarry's career just like the TV show will be, might be the perfect place to start.

"Quarry's Choice" is available in print, Kindle, and audio editions.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Brief Asides #4


Before this lovely month closes out, here are some quick observations about this and that.  Some of these thoughts are follow-ups on previous posts, or the first toe in the water on topics I may write about more fully later.

I wrote about the Amazon Prime cop show Bosch a while back, while I was still in the midst of watching the episodes.  Now that I’ve finished it, I’m still high on it.  While the plotting was sometimes a little basic and the dialogue sometimes a little too on the nose (more nuance and texture would have helped both those areas), I really liked the casting and performances.  In particular, I enjoyed how all the cops simultaneously cared deeply about each other but always seemed to be sick of one another, too.  I also liked the unusual character relationships.  For example, lead character Bosch is an L.A. detective trying, for the sake of his daughter, to get along with his ex-wife, a former FBI profiler who is now a professional poker player.  That set-up made for some unusual conversations and impromptu meet-ups.  The ten episodes of the show’s first season are still available to view on Amazon Prime.

On audio, I’m pretty immersed in Erik Larson’s Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania.  This is the latest in the author’s series of non-fiction works that he writes in a way to make them feel like page-turning thrillers.  Narrator Scott Brick does his usual polished job reading the book.  All this reminds me that a favorite writer of mine, Max Allan Collins, wrote a mystery called The Lusitania Murders some years back, which I somehow never read.  It sounds like I should hit that one as soon as I’m finished with the Larson, as it’ll make for a nice little companion piece.  Conveniently, the Collins is also available in both print and audio editions.

On Netflix, the 13-episode Marvel series Daredevil so far gets a big recommendation from me.  Based on the comic book about a blind superhero, the series is grim, gritty, and adult, which is a nice change of pace from the Marvel movies (though I’m generally happy with the overall upbeat tone of the movie stories).  And it’s great that the show has over a dozen hours to slowly introduce the character and what makes him tick, also a nice change from the movies, which- as well crafted as they are- have to do everything in two hours or so.  With strong movie and TV footholds, Marvel is really the king of popular culture these days, isn’t it?  Or maybe I should say Disney, because Disney owns Marvel and now also a little thing called Star Wars, which you’ll shortly be seeing all over the place again.

I’m also still enjoying Scandal on ABC, though with its frequent shootings, stabbings and torture sessions, the show is more like a Quentin Tarantino production these days.  But I guess it’s good not to be predictable, right?

Before I start getting in line for all the big summer movies very shortly, I managed to improve my mind by seeing a decent drama recently: Woman in Gold, starring Helen Mirren and Ryan Reynolds.  The film is about a woman’s efforts to get some famous artwork restored to her family’s possession after it was stolen by the Nazis during World War II.  The stolen artwork eventually fell into the hands of the Austrian government after the war, and despite the Austrians’ stated goal of wanting to return all the art to its rightful owners, it seems that they’re more than a little attached to some of the pieces, especially the ones that draw crowds to their museums.  This is a decent drama and offbeat legal thriller rolled into one, and well worth a trip to the theater to see.

That’s it for the time being.  Now get out there and enjoy the spring weather!