Monday, November 30, 2009

Enter the Saint by Leslie Charteris (1931)

Enter the Saint (1931) was Leslie Charteris' second foray into the Saint universe, but he liked it so much better than the book in which our hero first appeared, that he liked to think of it as the start of the series (which eventually grew into dozens of books, movies, TV shows, and a 1997 film I never heard of starring Val Kilmer).

And it is easy to see why the character was so popular -- known as "the Robin Hood of Modern Crime," Simon Templar, aka The Saint, is a moral criminal who steals from immoral criminals and donates all their ill-gotten wealth to charity, minus a 10% collector's fee for him and his compatriots. He is stylish, witty, smart, and very good at driving fast cars in a dare-devil fashion through the countryside. He calls everyone baby, sweetheart, angel, or love. He is just and moral and righteous, but he also drinks a lot, has a sexy and smart girlfriend, and knows how to crack a joke.

In this book, Charteris gives us three novellas staring The Saint and his gang as they outwit criminals and simultaneously help and avoid the great Inspector Teal of Scotland Yard. I get the feeling that the same thing happens in all the other books too, but I can't imagine getting tired of it. I'd never read any Leslie Charteris before, but I'd love to read more. And make sure to check out his Wikipedia page -- his biography is almost as exciting as his books.

[Super exciting back cover available here!]

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Telling the truth can be dangerous business

All those idiots who say that Ishtar is a bad movie are sadly misinformed:

It does get a little sloppy and loses some momentum when they go to North Africa, but it picks back up, and the first half of the movie is one of the funniest things I've ever seen. Make sure to watch at least the first few minutes of this.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Black and Blue by Anna Quindlen (1998)

Anna Quindlen's novel Black and Blue came out in 1998 and was immediately added to the illustrious ranks of Oprah's Book Club. Naturally it also shot right up the bestseller's list. At the time I was working at a Barnes and Noble and Oprah's Book Club was a Big Deal, and I didn't like it at all. I also had an immediate dislike for books on the bestseller's list since I had to stick 30% off stickers on every one of them, and then take them off all the ones that fell off the list at the end of the week. And yet, somehow, I ended up with a copy of Black and Blue that I have been moving around with me for the past 11 years. My copy even had one of those dreaded 30% off stickers stuck to the inside of the front cover. But: it came up on my random reading list generator, and I decided to finally give Black and Blue a chance.

This is the story of Fran Benedetto. She has been married to Bobby Benedetto, a New York police officer, for fifteen years. They have a son named Robert. She works as a nurse. And Bobby has been beating her since she was 19 years old.

As the book begins, Fran has started her journey away from Bobby with the help of a battered woman's organization that is run just like the witness protection program. She takes Robert and tries to settle down in an anonymous town in Florida, but all the time she is looking over her shoulder and waiting for her husband to find her. Gradually she starts to make friends and find work, Robert has a buddy in their apartment building and enjoys playing sports at school. Fran even finds a man who loves her, and who she thinks she can trust. But eventually, the inevitable has to happen.

Quindlen is a good writer, and the story is well-written with compelling (although sometimes a little clich├ęd) characters and a suspenseful ending. By the nature of the subject matter, the plot is pretty suffocating (everything is defined in terms of Fran's abuse by Bobby, and there is no doubt that he is going to find her and Robert eventually). I can't really hold the singular focus of the novel against Quindlen, since I'm sure that a woman in Fran's situation couldn't help but experience life just the way Quindlen writes it, but it does not make this an easy or really very enjoyable book to read.

Although it is occasionally a little overly Lifetime, I would say that Black and Blue has once again proven my distrust of Oprah's Book Club and the bestseller list wrong.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

I'm a Winner!

I won a book giveaway from the always entertaining Forgotten Bookmarks site yesterday. If you haven't looked at it before, you should check it out -- finding things slipped into old books has always been one of my favorite surprises. Thanks FB!

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Trouble Under Oz (2006)

The lovely Choo loaned me Trouble Under Oz (2006) by Sherwood Smith, an authorized modern addition to L. Frank Baum's Oz series. The book is actually a sequel to Smith's first journey into the Oz world, The Emerald Wand of Oz, which I haven't read, but she gives enough background about the characters that, much like Baum's original series, you can read the books independently.

Dori and Em are two sisters in Kansas who have already had one exciting adventure together in Oz, thanks to a wild tornado. While they were there, Glinda gave them a special snow globe that they can use to see what is going on in Oz while they are back in Kansas. The two look at it all the time, and one day Dori sees Tik-Tok holding a sign that Glinda needs their help. Lucky for them, a series of unusual coincidences (snow storm, sick grandmother, fighting parents) clear the way for Dori to journey to Oz while Em stays home and covers for her. Once in Oz, Dori hooks up with Prince Inga of Pingaree (who you might remember from Rinkitink in Oz) to find Prince Rikiki, the son of the deposed leader of the Nomes who Dori met up with in her last adventure, and help him get his throne back while avoiding a war with the neighboring kingdoms. Oh and there is also some kind of trouble with Dorothy and weird black clouds, which is pretty obviously thrown in there to give Dori and Em something to do in the next addition to the series...

The three young people have some nice adventures with plenty of nods back to the original series. While the book is well written, it doesn't have the looseness or creativity of the Baum originals, but that isn't really Smith's fault since adding to a classic series is naturally a less free and creative medium than starting something from scratch. The book is illustrated by William Stout, who did a great job except that all his drawings show Dori with short hair and in one scene Em makes a point of saying that Dori's hair is very long -- am I a nerd for being bothered by this? I did like that Smith makes a point of having Dori ask where all the female Nomes are, since you never see or hear anything about them in the original Oz books, and the answer is excellent.

I'm not sure that this is a book that needs to be read by anyone except those who have a love for the Oz world, but if you do, then Smith's new additions to the series seem to be worth checking out.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Tennessee Williams: Four Plays (1976)

I bought this copy of Tennessee Williams: Four Plays (1976) because my bookclub was reading Orpheus Descending, and I was happy to get the chance to also check out Summer and Smoke, Suddenly Last Summer, and Period of Adjustment.

Orpheus Descending (1957) is a revised version of Williams' first play, Battle of Angels, which played briefly in 1940 to a poor reception. He couldn't let the story go, though, and revised and reworked it for 17 years until his star was bright enough to give the failed story another shot. The play is about Lady, an Italian woman who runs a confectionery in a small southern town with her sick (and cruel) husband, Jabe. One day a musician comes into town, trying to escape his previous life of partying and stealing. Lady gives him a job at the store and the two begin a love affair with her husband dying in the bedroom upstairs. Things don't end that well for anyone.

Summer and Smoke (1948) is the story of Alma, a preacher's daughter, and the boy next door, John, a doctor's son. Ever since she was a little girl, Alma has loved John, even though he moved from a little boy who teased her to a grown man that mostly ignores her. Alma grows into a high-strung and sensitive adult who gives piano lessons, sings awkwardly at public events, and giggles nervously just about all the time. When John returns home from college he is at loose ends and reconnects with Alma, raising her hopes that they will be together at last. As the year moves on, however, he spends more and more time at the Moon River Casino with the owner's sexy daughter Rosa. Things don't end that well for most of these characters, either. This one is probably my favorite of this batch.

In Suddenly Last Summer (1958) things don't even start all that well. A wealthy New Orleanian woman's doting middle-aged son died while on vacation with his pretty young cousin, Catherine, who has been hysterical since she returned and is being kept in a private mental institution by her wealthy aunt. Mrs. Venable has a Sister bring Catherine to her home from the institution to tell the real story of her son's death, since she does not believe the story that Catherine keeps telling everyone. And to make sure that Catherine doesn't tell anyone the story anymore, her aunt has hired Dr. Cukrowicz to force her niece into getting a lobotomy.

And, finally, in Period of Adjustment (1960) (subtitled High Point over a Cavern: A Serious Comedy) things start out pretty rough, get even rougher in the middle, but end up working out just fine. A newlywed couple, George and Isabel, drop in on George's old army buddy Ralph on their second day of marriage. Things didn't go well on their first night as a married couple, and they are both pretty riled up about it. Ralph isn't doing too much better since his wife packed up their young son and left him earlier that day. Oh, and it is also Christmas Eve. It turns out that both of the couples are just going through a period of adjustment.

I really like Tennessee Williams -- everything about his plays is heightened and tragic and romantic and sad, and that is just the kind of thing I like. I can understand why he doesn't appeal to everyone, but if you like Williams, this collection of some of his less well-known plays is worth checking out.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Let the Right One In (2004)

I always enjoy seeing what the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program decides to send me, even though it usually isn't a book or author I had ever heard of. So when I got the notice that they were sending me a copy of John Ajvide Lindqvist's Let the Right One In (2004) -- the book upon which the recent vampire movie is based -- I got extra excited. I love good vampire stories, and from what I had heard about the movie this was a genuinely freaky horror story without all that teenage Twilight-y nonsense.

In the bleak winter of suburban 1980s Stockholm, 12-year-old Oskar holes himself up after school in his bedroom in the apartment he shares with his mother to avoid the constant bullying he is subjected to on the playground. His secret hobby is clipping out newspaper articles about murderers and serial killers and pasting them into his scrapbook. His bookshelves are filled with horror novels, and his daydreams often turn violently against the boys the bully him at school.

Then, one evening, a boy is killed, drained of blood, in the woods in a nearby town. The next night Oskar meets his new neighbor on the playground at the apartment complex. She is an odd young girl named Eli who simultaneously attracts and repulses Oskar, but he can't stop going out every night to see her again.

One of Oskar's neighbors is part of a group of friends who meet up at a nearby Chinese restaurant every night to drown their sorrows and pass the time. Then one of them disappears, and the only witness to his death is the saddest and drunkest of the group -- a man who lives with dozens and dozens of cats and hardly ever leaves the house. He saw his friend attacked by a child, but he doesn't think anyone would believe him and doesn't want to get involved.

Things escalate -- both between Oskar and Eli and between the victims and survivors. The characterization in this book is excellent -- the coming of age romance between the two children, the co-dependence of Eli and those around her, and the friendships and broken lives of all the adults. And there are also some kick ass horror scenes, excellent (and often disturbing) kills, and a nice interpretation of the traditional vampire mythology.

I am excited to watch the movie, and even though I've heard it's great, I can't imagine that it could hold up to the book. Very nicely done.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Behind a Mask: Or, A Woman's Power (1866)

Little Women was one of my favorite books growing up, and since Louisa May Alcott and I share a birthday, I've always been a bit fascinated with her and her life. I'm not sure how I went all these years without checking out some of her pseudonymously published romantic potboilers, but thanks to the technological serialization of DailyLit, I just finished reading Behind a Mask: Or, A Woman's Power (1866) in 48 easy installments.

Alcott was much like her Little Women character Jo, and wrote Behind a Mask and her other A. M. Barnard stories to earn the money that her family needed but her idealistically transcendentalist father could not supply. The story is romantic and suspenseful, but skilfully written with underlying themes that make it something more than just a paycheck.

A young and lovely governess, Jean Muir, is recommended to the wealthy Coventry family as a companion for the teenage Bella. She is coldly received by the eldest son and heir, Gerald, and his betrothed, his cousin Lucia, but warmly welcomed by Mrs. Coventry and her younger son Edward. Ms. Muir quickly enchants most of the family with her quick wit and lovely singing voice, and earns their pity with a delicate constitution and sad back-story. In fact, one by one, even the hardest hearts of the family will fall madly in love with her. But at the end of the first chapter, when the new governess is left alone in her room, we see her remove her make-up, relax her guard, and show us that she is not at all what she seems.

This book worked particularly well being divided up into daily segments, and I'm keen to check out some of Alcott's other works for hire...

Friday, November 06, 2009


Don't you think that Carol from the Where the Wild Things Are movie looks like he could be a close relation of.....

...Coach McGuirk from Home Movies?

This point would be easier to prove had I access to a larger library of stills, but if you have seen them both, then do you know what I mean?

Thursday, November 05, 2009

The Kids are All Right (2009)

Our latest literary society discussion pick is The Kids Are All Right (2009) by Diana and Liz Welch, with the help of their brother Dan and their sister Amanda. This is a memoir of four siblings, each of whom experienced and remember the unsettling events of their youth in very different ways that all come together into a very engrossing and moving book.

When Amanda, the oldest sibling, was 16 and Diana, the youngest, was four, their father died in a car accident. He was driving back to their home in Bedford, New York form his father's funeral in Boston. Their mother, a soap opera actress, was left alone with the four children and a mountain of previously undisclosed financial problems. And then, one month later, she was diagnosed with cancer. When she died four years later, the siblings struggled to find families that could take them in, especially the two youngest -- Dan (14) and Diana (8) -- but no one would volunteer to take them all.

I am not always a fan of the "crazy childhood" memoir genre -- I think they are often played either too lightly or too tragically. But The Kids Are All Right, in part because of its four narrators, is moving because it is straightforward and has a natural delivery of both humor and sadness. And while much of the book is about the family tragedies, the memoir also gives us the same awkward and funny and isolating and embarrassing normal experiences of growing up. Very nicely done.

[There is also a lovely web site, if you want to find out more about the book and the Welch family.]

Monday, November 02, 2009

Flaubert's Parrot (1984)

Books say: She did this because. Life says: She did this. Books are where things are explained to you; life is where things aren't. I'm not surprised some people prefer books. Books make sense of life. The only problem is that the lives they make sense of are other people's lives, never your own.

One of the things I love about my friend St. Murse is that he will sometimes give or loan me books that he didn't like. This is actually not a bad system since I am a pretty forgiving reader and tend to like 91% of what I read. And, as suspected, I totally liked Julian Barnes' novel Flaubert's Parrot (1984), although I can understand why Murse and others might not like it as much.

Flaubert's Parrot is a kind of post-modern meta-novel that mostly discusses the life, work, and critical reception of Gustave Flaubert (who wrote Madame Bovary, among other things). But that isn't really what it is about. It is sort of about a retired doctor / amateur Flaubert historian. It is sort of about the doctor's wife. It is sort of about reading and writing and criticism. A lot of it is about adultery and marriage and being with someone and being alone. And some of it is about the identification of stuffed parrots and the exact color of red current jam in the 19th century. That Barnes manages to fit all this and more into 216 pages on the life of Flaubert (and to make those pages conversational, readable, and fun) is quite a feat.

If you have never read any Flaubert, hate Flaubert, or rankle at fiction that breaks the fourth wall and employs post-moderny conceits, then this is probably not the book for you. But I really liked it.

And one more quote, because I can't resist:

I can't prove that lay readers enjoy books more than professional critics; but I can tell you one advantage we have over them. We can forget. [They] are cursed with memory: the books they teach and write about can never fade from their brains. They become family. Perhaps that is why some critics develop a faintly patronising tone towards their subjects. They act as if Flaubert, or Milton, or Wordsworth were some tedious old aunt in a rocking chair, who smelt of stale powder, was only interested in the past, and hadn't said anything new for years. Of course, it's her house, and everybody's living in it rent free; but even so, surely it is, well, you know...time?

Whereas the common but passionate reader is allowed to forget; he can go away, be unfaithful with other writers, come back and be entranced again. Domesticity need never intrude on the relationship; it may be sporadic, but when there it is always intense. There's none of the daily rancour which develops when two people live bovinely together. I never find myself, fatigue in the voice, reminding Flaubert to hang up the bathmat or use the lavatory brush...