A penny saved is ridiculous.

A penny saved is ridiculous.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Two versions of "Vice"

A few years ago, I wrote the following review of Thomas Pynchon's novel "Inherent Vice" and posted it on Amazon.  I'm not sure if I re-posted it here, during the early days of this blog, but- even if I did- an occasional rerun is allowed, right?  Anyway, the reason it's here now is because the movie version of the book, directed by the always interesting Paul Thomas Anderson, will be out soon, and I thought readers might enjoy some thoughts about the book.  I did have problems with the novel, as you'll see, but I'm still looking forward to the movie.  The trailer is available to view on the 'net and the movie looks well-crafted, well-acted, and pretty funny.  In any event, here's what I thought of the book...

Sometimes when a writer of straight-up dramas or literary works takes a crack at the mystery genre, the results can be interesting. I often reflect on Martin Amis' Night Train, for instance. Amis made use of the conventions of the mystery genre without allowing himself to be pulled along by them, ultimately delivering a gangbusters, heartbreaking story that delivered satisfaction by, well... not delivering satisfaction and clarity on every aspect of the story. The lingering mystery of "why...?" on certain character points can be just as resonant as an "Aha!" type explanation, as Amis ably demonstrated. But, just as importantly, he told a clear story along the way to his ambiguity-laced conclusion.

But we're talking about Thomas Pynchon's Inherent Vice, aren't we? Anyway, the thing starts out well, and throughout delivers much value: lots of well-drawn, imaginative scene setting, description, and characterizations (Doc, the central character, is both smart and ridiculous), but soon the story gets so complicated and meandering that all one can really enjoy are individual scenes, which- to be fair- are often quite well-crafted. However, any momentum, novel-wide architectural craftsmanship that builds on what has gone before, etc., occurs in minimal fashion. 

So, Pynchon doesn't even get to the point where he has to choose between haunting mysteriousness and total explanation in the resolution, because the hundreds of pages of story before the closing sections are muddled and unclear already. In other words, while the resolution in Night Train produced many questions to think about afterward, Amis' comprehensible, well-crafted story clearly laid out those questions beforehand... we easily followed what was going on up until the ultimate questions are laid at our feet. Pynchon doesn't do that; his whole story is all over the map.

To be clear (can't resist that), Inherent Vice offers some good banter, observation (especially of the cynical variety), humor, and the imaginative description I mentioned before, but in the end the book was a chore. Not as painful as other chores, but- with its muddled story and muddled final viewpoint- a chore nonetheless. The book does work as a kind of mood piece, I'll give it that. And if that's enough for you, give it a shot. For me, Inherent Vice fell into the trap of many literary works: it disregarded craft in favor of self-conscious artiness. And that can often result, as it did in my case, in frequent distraction and yawns.

Friday, September 26, 2014


How To Get Away With Murder series premiere: one murder set in one timeline, another set in a timeline about three months later, with the show jumping back and forth between the two timelines while squeezing in all kinds of other subplots. I better lay off that second glass of wine if I'm going to try to keep up with this. I didn't realize I was tuning into Raymond Chandler crossed with Lost.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Another visit with Mr. McGee

Over the past year or two, I've been enjoying finally discovering John D. MacDonald's classic Travis McGee series, which the prolific author wrote from the 1960's until his death in the 1980's. This is the eighth entry in the series, and this time our self-described "salvage expert" McGee tries to figure out where a friend's late husband's fortune disappeared to after his death.

As fans of these books are well aware, the gimmick (though that's really too cheap a word to employ here) of the McGee series is that our man Trav spends as much time communicating his various philosophies to the reader- on topics as diverse as credit cards, human mating rituals, the best way to cook a steak, etc., etc.- as he does discussing the current book's case at hand. Due to the skill of the author, McGee's frequent speeches are, thankfully, always thought-provoking and a lot of fun, even if you don't agree with them all.

In fact, it was one of Travis' social topics this time out that made this book particularly interesting. Along with the imaginative, often very dark, plot about the dead husband and his estate that disappeared before anyone could inherit it, I enjoyed this installment a lot because it addressed a seeming contradiction that's become pretty apparent now that the series has reached book eight: namely, Travis has often lamented the superficiality of most male/female relationships, pointing out that the "new permissiveness" has mainly resulted in people using each other and moving on to the next person, with little true appreciation- especially by men- of the special, sacred aspects of human connection (I'm paraphrasing there, but I think I accurately summed up the character's frequently-expressed view). 

And where's the contradiction, you say? Only in the fact that, over the eight books so far, Travis has routinely moved through one to three women per book, with nothing ever lasting very long. Talk about glass houses.

So, here, in One Fearful Yellow Eye, we finally get a little introspection and speechifying by Travis about this seeming contradiction, and it's interesting. It'll also be interesting to see how some of Travis' conclusions will be applied to his future dealings with women.

But for those mainly looking for a decent mystery story, don't worry, this novel definitely delivers that, too. There's danger, very creepy antagonists, surprising revelations regarding who was behind what, and some very effective suspense. Dark secrets, mortal danger, and all under the radiant sunshine and gorgeous blue skies of southern Florida. What more can readers want?

Between all that, and a new, even more self-aware Travis McGee, One Fearful Yellow Eye amounts to one of the richer installments of the series so far.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Age of Aquarius revisited

The fourth mystery in Max Allan Collins' Mallory series, the hauntingly-titled A Shroud For Aquarius is an involving little story mainly consisting of a series of interviews as our man Mallory- now a fairly successful mid-list mystery writer- approaches various suspects who may have had something to do with the death of Mallory's old friend Ginnie Mullens. Mallory's investigation is actually done at the request of the police this time, not despite their disapproval, which is an interesting touch.

As Ginnie was a 60's radical in all senses of the word (anti-war, fairly adventurous when it came to drugs and relationships), author Collins skillfully weaves into the narrative a hard look on Mallory's part (and Collins', too?) at the 60's generation: acknowledging what it accomplished but taking it to task for some of its more self-indulgent aspects.  These introspective moments are interesting and thoughtful, and enhance rather than slow the story at hand.

As Mallory gets close to the truth, effective scenes of tension and danger are stirred into the mix, but there's also a little sexy romance, too, as Mallory gets reacquainted with a girl from the old days who got away (or so he thought).  Both the danger and romance scenes are well done, and there are just the right amount of each.

A light, fast read with a little food for thought, A Shroud for Aquarius is a solid piece of early work from Mr. Collins, now happily available again on Kindle and in print.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Good for a spin

Stephen King's Mr. Mercedes has a pretty good hook which quickly draws us into the story: a retired police detective, bored and quite possibly suicidal, gets a new lease on life when he starts getting taunted by "the one that got away", a homicidal maniac who ran down a whole bunch of people in line for a job fair. Detective Bill Hodges now has a reason to live again, as he decides to chase down "the Mercedes Killer" himself, rather than turn things over to his former cop colleagues.

This maybe isn't first-tier King, as the plotting and characters are fairly simple. Bill Hodges, for example, is totally good and totally likable (if sometimes flawed in his thinking), while the Mercedes Killer is totally creepy and totally evil. This doesn't make things horrible, just a little less interesting than many of King's other books. There's good suspense throughout, though, and a few story highlights. These include a gory poisoning death that makes the book feel like the classic King of old, and a long set piece near the end, set at a boy-band concert attended by 4000 screaming pre-teens, where our heroes attempt to prevent a tragedy that would make the Mercedes Killer's first act of terror seem like a hangnail.

There's some good humor throughout, too. The way King describes the insipid daytime TV that retiree Hodges is watching day in and day out at the story's start makes us completely understand why the barrel end of Hodge's service revolver is starting to look disturbingly good to him. Talk about horrific!

If this novel was one of those 800-page affairs of King's, I'd be harder on it. But, as it's fairly compact, I'm basically okay with its more simple, modest pleasures. You get a decent cat-and-mouse detective plot, a little romance, some likable supporting characters, and at least three or four instances where you'll be turning the pages very quickly. Hey, not everything has to be Duma Key or 11/22/63. Sometimes "pretty good" is perfectly fine.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Toasting the weekend

On this fine Friday, let's take a moment to contemplate one of our favorite beverages here in the Taproom.  Courtesy of the internet, here are some things to consider...

A meal without wine... is called breakfast.

Wine improves with age.  The older I get, the better I like it.

The other day someone told me that I could make ice cubes with leftover wine.  I get confused... what is leftover wine?

In wine there is wisdom.  In beer there is freedom.  In water there is bacteria.

Alcohol is not the answer.  It just makes you forget the question.

Does Mom have a birthday coming up?  Buy her a bottle of wine.  Remember, you're the reason she drinks!

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

More excitement and fun, please

Enjoying the way that the superhero group The Avengers and its individual superhero members have been presented at the movies these past few years, I thought I'd take a gander at how the characters are being portrayed in the comics these days.  So I recently picked up a nice-looking trade paperback called Avengers, Volume One: Avengers World.

Alas, this collection of the first six issues of yet another Avengers comic book title (there are many these days due to the success of the movies) delivered a fairly entertaining reading experience but not much beyond that. The artwork, production values, and printing are first-rate, I'll say that. But I found the stories to be just okay, and often murky and dull. 

The first three issues collected here deal with a weird group of aliens trying to destroy, re-make, or recreate from scratch all life on Earth (again, the aliens' aims and motivations were murky). The final three issues mostly center around our heroes dealing with the aftermath of that attack (lots of clean-up required), with a couple of updated superhero origin stories laced into the proceedings. Again, all that was okay, too, but there wasn't much excitement or real drama to kick things up a notch. 

To be clear, I wasn't looking for continuous mindless action-- just cleverness, momentum, high stakes, memorable conflict, etc. You know, good 'ol superhero melodrama. The storyline here had some of that stuff, but not enough to make this the fun ride it should have been.