Saturday, November 28, 2009

Book 6: Paradise Alley by Sylvester Stallone

That’s no typo in the title. Rocky wrote a book, y’all. A terrible, horrible, no good, just downright pathetic attempt at a novel.

The Carboni brothers are a trio of Italian-American clich├ęs who live in Hell’s Kitchen in 1946. It’s difficult to refer to them as anything more than that – there’s nothing to flesh them out into real people. Victor, the baby Carboni, is a “gentle giant” – big as a house but harmless, and as dumb as a bag of beauty pageant contestants. Cosmo, the middle child, is a con artist who prides himself on his wit and clever schemes, none of which ever actually make him any money. He’s also the character most given to speaking in incredibly hackneyed New Yawk patois – “No, I ain’t been keen on that fleabag of yours, but El Suppa’s monkey haz class!” (Don’t ask about the monkey.) Lenny, the oldest Carboni, is a disabled veteran of World War II who spends his days working in a morgue and his nights drinking his pain away.

The female characters don’t fare much better than the men. There’s Annie, the dancer who dreams of being an artist but can’t seem to find her way out of the slums. There’s Bunchie (seriously), the prototypical “hooker with a heart of gold,” whom Cosmo respects as much for her advice as for her… other services. And then there’s Rose, Victor’s girlfriend, who’s more of a cipher than anything. She’s his faithful, devoted gal who dreams of one day leaving Hell’s Kitchen and moving on up… to a houseboat in New Jersey. Dream big, kids.

But I digress. Victor works as an iceman, delivering giant blocks to residents in the sweltering heat of the summer. It doesn’t pay well, and he’s not getting any closer to that dream houseboat he so desires. One night, he and his brothers are out drinking, and they run afoul of a local buncha mooks lead by Nickels Mahon. (It physically hurts to type these names. Seriously, Nickels?) Victor ends up clobbering the big thug, Frankie the Thumper. After the fight, Cosmo realizes that he has a veritable gold mine in the form of his baby brother, so he convinces him to wrestle for money down at the local club, Paradise Alley. Victor goes by the name “Kid Salami” – because he’s Italian? Or he really likes cold cuts? It’s never explained, but damn if it isn’t the dumbest name I’ve ever heard.

At first, Lenny opposes the idea of Victor wrestling, but as Victor starts on an undefeated run and the money comes rolling in, Lenny comes around and takes on the role of Victor’s manager. Cosmo, on the other hand, begins to realize what a physical toll the fighting is taking on Victor, and starts urging him to give it up. Tensions build between the brothers, and it all comes to a head at a big final match between Victor and Frankie the Thumper.

The story moves incredibly quickly. In one chapter, Cosmo is completely gung-ho about making money off his little brother. Then suddenly, he thinks it’s a bad idea. This is a guy who, at the beginning of the novel, wanted to use a dead hooker’s body to make some money by selling her “services” to drunks who wouldn’t realize they were fucking a dead body. I’m supposed to believe a louse like that would really give two shits about his brother taking a few hits to the head? Likewise, Lenny is against the idea, then all of a sudden he’s all for it and totally ignoring his little brother’s pain. And he goes from pining over his old girlfriend, Annie, to blowing her off to go screw a hooker. There’s no progression or explanation for the changes. It’s all action and dialogue, no development or discussion or anything really resembling storytelling. It’s kinda like reading a screenplay rather than a novel, only minus the technical elements. So it comes as absolutely no surprise to learn that Stallone adapted this into a movie that he directed and starred in AND for which he sang the theme song (he is a man of many hats). I have not seen the movie, but I imagine it’s pretty awful based on the original material.

My biggest question after reading the book is, “WHY?” Why bother to write a novel when he was clearly thinking the whole time about how the screenplay and thus the movie would work? I suppose he wanted the honor of being recognized as a published author. Somehow, I doubt he received the praise he sought.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Book 5: We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

Gotta get this review in quick - there are cookies to be baked!

Shirley Jackson knows how to weave a spooky tale. She is, of course, best known for her short story "The Lottery," a tale that showed that underneath our modern veneer lies an uncivilized and barbaric heart. In her novel "We Have Always Lived in the Castle," Jackson again shows how society can take its toll on the individual as she tells the tale of sisters Mary Katherine and Constance Blackwood. This time, she explores the lengths to which one will go to protect oneself from the dangers of the world... and from other people.

Mary Katherine, or Merricat as her sister calls her, and Constance live in the secluded Blackwood manor with their disabled Uncle Julian. They are ostracized from the nearby village due to a highly publicized tragedy that occurred six years ago. Their family is dead from poisoning (arsenic in the sugar at dinnertime), for which Constance was arrested, tried, and found not guilty. Despite this verdict, the townspeople of the village believe she got away with murder, and so Constance has become agoraphobic and shut away in her home, away from gossiping villagers. She spends her days cooking and cleaning and taking care of Uncle Julian, who is in a wheelchair and suffers dementia possibly as a side effect of arsenic poisoning (he is the lone survivor - Constance never took any poison, nor did Merricat, who had been sent to bed without supper that night). She and her sister have their routines - they do not like change. No one is allowed into the house except close family friends: people who were close to their parents and still drop by for tea - perhaps to keep up appearances, but most likely to gawk at the house and its odd inhabitants.

The story is told in Merricat's voice. Merricat spends her days burying things for fun; running with her cat, Jonas; and thinking of ways to protect her sister and their home from the hateful villagers. She seems to believe in magical thinking - she chooses words that she cannot speak aloud, and by not saying them, she can prevent changes from happening. Also, she has talismans to prevent others from breeching the safety of their home - for example, she nails a book of her father's to a tree to "protect" them. One day, she notices that the book has fallen off the tree, and she immediately recognizes this as a bad omen.

Their safe, routine lives are disrupted by the sudden appearance of a distant cousin, Charles Blackwood. He is allowed into the house, as he is family, but Merricat does not want him to upset the balance of their home. It is clear that Charles is seeking the rumored Blackwood fortune. His presence seems to wake Constance to the fact that they have been in hiding all these years, and as she starts to think about going back out into the world, Merricat becomes more and more distressed. She decides to find a way to drive him out, but her actions have powerful consequences and spell doom for all the Blackwoods.

I don't want to give too much away, because I thought this was a fantastic novel. I definitely recommend it to anyone who likes a good spooky, creepy read. Jackson knows how to draw you in with only a few sentences, and she can weave a tale in under 200 pages that will stick with you for days. (Unlike, say, Stephen King, who drones on and on for 1000s of pages... edit, man, edit!) And she could teach today's horror writers a thing or two about being scary or creepy without being gory and violent (cough King cough - am I bitter or what?). She sets the mood early in the story, with the very first chapter that describes a typical venture into town for groceries, and carries it all the way through the tragic ending.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Book 4: Waiting by Ha Jin

Ha Jin's "Waiting" tells the story of Lin Kong, a meek, obedient doctor in the Chinese Army who is torn by his duty to Communist China and his desire to find love. Lin is married to Shuyu, a woman who represents the old ways of China through her bound feet and their arranged marriage, but while in the army he meets Manna, a young nurse who falls for him despite the fact that he has a wife and daughter in the country. Lin does not love Shuyu; he only married her to please his dying mother. She looks much older than her years, and he is embarrassed by her bound feet. He only spends 10 days a year at home with her and Hua, their daughter, during leave from the army. In contrast, Manna is young and attractive, and over time they develop a desire to be with one another. Manna convinces Lin to divorce his wife, and so on his annual trips home, he takes Shuyu to the local courthouse to obtain a divorce. And year after year, his wish is denied. However, according to military rule, after 18 years of living separately, a husband and wife can divorce without the wife's consent, so on his 18th attempt, Lin wins his divorce, and he and Manna are free to marry. From there, the story moves quickly, and by the end of the book, Lin has realized that he has spent his entire life doing nothing but waiting - for a divorce, for marriage to Manna, for him to finally experience that elusive thing called love.

The most interesting thing about the book was the glimpse it gave into life in Communist China. Growing up as the Cold War was ending, I don't recall having the spectre of Communism hanging above my head. For as long as I can remember, our enemies have been in the Middle East; our major conflicts have been the first Gulf War and the current mess in Iraq. I don't even recall learning much in history class - it was mostly Civil War, World Wars I & II, and then Mother Russia hated us and the Berlin Wall fell. The end. (Ok, history was my least favorite class, and I may have spent most of my time daydreaming, but I really don't recall learning much about Communism.) Ha Jin was himself in the army while he lived in China, so his portrayal of the Lin's struggle to remain true to both his country and his desires is very realistic. It's amazing to realize just how devoted Lin's countrymen were to their duties. There's also some descriptions of everyday propaganda used by the government to promote their ideals and keep their citizens in line.

And I struggled at first to try not to despise Lin. His reasons for wanting to divorce his wife angered me - she was ugly & looked old, and her feet embarrassed him? She was also very devoted to him, took care of his parents on their deathbeds, and raised his daughter single-handedly. However, I realized that I was letting a cultural divide prevent me from enjoying the story. In America, arranged marriages are very rare, and divorces are incredibly easy to come by. If a guy doesn't like a woman, he won't marry her just because his mother wants him to... but if he does, he can easily divorce her shortly thereafter. In 1960s China, one of the most important values stressed by the government was the idea of a strong family - which meant divorce was frowned upon and hard to obtain, particularly in the country. Once I got over my biases, I found the book to be a vivid, well-written glance into a culture that I admittedly know little about, but came to understand a little better.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Ballroom With a Twist

Just got back from the Community Arts Center. We went to see "Ballroom With a Twist," a production directed & choreographed by Louis van Amstel of "Dancing With the Stars" and "So You Think You Can Dance" fame. It featured various ballroom routines performed by a dozen dancers. They did jive, quickstep, samba, rumba, cha-cha, and others I recognized from watching SYTYCD but couldn't quite name. In between numbers, David Hernandez and Trenyce of American Idol (seasons 7 and 2) came out to sing a few numbers and (attempt to) banter with the audience.

1. Allison Holker of Season 2 of SYTYCD was one of the dancers! Season 2 is one of my favorite seasons (along with Season 3... oh Pasha, how I miss you), and I still watch it from time to time. So seeing her on the playbill made me a little excited. I don't get starstruck, but in this case, I was thrilled. She even performed a few contemporary solos, and they were honestly the best part of the show.
2. When they announced David Hernandez, the girl next to Matt literally squealed. I mean, really? You're going to squee over a 12th place finisher?
3. While Trenyce was getting her Whitney on with a cover of "I Have Nothing," a woman in the row in front of us started clapping at the end of the first chorus. I'm not sure if she thought the song was over, or if she was just overcome by Trenyce's fierce gutteral intonations (girl was full-on growling by the end of the song), but I suddenly got the church giggles and had to plug my nose to prevent snorting.
4. One of the dancers kept referring to us as "Williamsport... Pennsylvania," like we didn't know what state we were living in. And she had this really dramatic pause after Williamsport, when she was clearly trying to remember where the hell she was.
5. One dancer had some amazing high kicks that reminded us of Benji Schwimmer. And then we were sad that he wasn't there.
6. Trenyce and David came out to talk to the audience and kill some time during the second half. They asked if anyone had any questions for them, and the spontaneous clapping lady in front of us shouted out, "ADAM!" I guess she was referring to Adam Lambert, the most recent winner of AI. Which has fuck all to do with the show tonight. She was clearly on something. They ignored her and proceeded to ask each other what they had in the works so they could shamelessly plug their upcoming projects.

The second half was better than the first, full of sexy sambas and a great group finale. Considering our tickets were free (yay for student tickets from Penn Tech), I would say it was a great way to spend an evening.

And I am really looking forward to this weekend. I got the whole weekend off from work, so Matt & I are headed out of town. We booked a last minute hotel room and decided to spend this weekend relaxing, just the two of us, before our families gather for the holidays. We didn't plan it this way, but our anniversary happens to be coming up, so it's kinda good timing. So I hope y'all have a great weekend, because come 5 pm tomorrow, I'm disappearing until Monday!

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Book 3: Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynne Truss

I've been meaning to read this book for a while. Truss, a British journalist, fed up after years of witnessing major abuse to the use of punctuation in all walks of life, has written a witty guide meant to teach and illuminate its finer points. She delves into each separate punctuation mark and discusses its history from inception to modern-day uses (and abuses). Her writing is sharp and funny, and her examples are clever. From the chapter on apostrophes, here are some examples of the use of "it's":

It's your turn (it is your turn)
It's got very cold (it has got very cold)
It's a braw bricht moonlicht nicht the nicht (no idea)

It's Truss's wit and true love for punctuation that keeps her writing from turning condescending and dull. Of course, I'm the person at work who takes down signs that have errant commas, so I'm pretty much her intended reader. I love her idea of "sticklers" coming together to fight for correct usage of apostrophes and so on.

The book is a quick, enjoyable read. The version I read wasn't adapted for American audiences, so a few of the references were lost on me, and I had to remind myself that some of the English rules don't apply to American printing. But overall, I would recommend this book to anyone who loves grammar... and those who could use a few pointers.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Book 2: Multiple Blessings by Jon and Kate Gosselin

I have never been that girly girl who dreamed of her wedding day. Likewise, I've never had any sort of maternal desires. At all. The thought of having a kid fills me simultaneously with fear and disgust. It's just not for me. So reading this book was like a glimpse into another world... one where it's all babies, all the time.

Multiple Blessings lists both Jon & Kate Gosselin as the authors, but the book is told entirely from Kate's POV. It's the story of how Kate grew up wanting children, got married, had two kids, then decided to try for just one more and got 6 instead. Having seen their TLC show, and knowing all about their recent troubles thanks to their non-stop media blitz, I was fairly familiar with most of their story, but the book sheds some light on how difficult it was for Kate to get pregnant. It also refers to Kate's unwavering faith in God to pull her through her difficult pregnancies.

The book doesn't contain too many surprises, given that the Gosselins are a very public family thanks to their TLC show and recent media blitz. But I did learn a few things. Kate is one of those Christians who believes that God has a plan for everyone, and she refers to it repeatedly throughout the book. I knew that the Gosselins had turned to infertility treatments to help them conceive, but I didn't know that she had Polycyctic Ovarian Syndrome, which meant that she never ovulated... ever. Now, a more cynical person than I would interject at this point, "Perhaps that was her God's way of telling her she's not supposed to have kids?" But luckily I'm not that cynical.

Also, Kate underwent all sorts of medical procedures and endured a lot of problems during her second pregancy... probably because the human body is not meant to carry 6 fetuses at one time. Her complete disregard for her own health is a little disturbing - she describes being obsessed with providing for her babies in the womb, but what of her other children? If she had died from complications while pregnant, she would've left behind two little girls - if she had died after childbirth she would've had 8 children who would've had to grow up without a mother. Her singlemindedness was astounding. Her doctor even encouraged her to use selective reduction, and reduce the amount of fetuses to a more viable number, but she and Jon wouldn't hear it. And yet... she mentions praying that her God would reduce the number for her. Whether God or the doctor does it, it's still eliminating a fetus... but if her God did it, she wouldn't feel any guilt.

But my opinions aside, this was a really easy read. I did find myself looking for clues to explain the implosion of their marriage, but the book doesn't really go much deeper than discussing her pregnancies and the first few years of the sextuplets. I suppose I'll have to read her next book (is there one? I'm sure there's one in the works at the very least) if I really want to know.

I don't think I do.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

CRII: Book 1: The Dark Tower (book 7) by Stephen King

Well, I picked a hell of a week to read an 800+ pager. But... it is DONE. Don't know if this is necessary, but *spoilers ahead*:

Stephen King's Dark Tower series is his "magnum opus," as he calls it. It is, to be brief, the tale of gunslinger Roland Deschain of Gilead, son of Steven, of the line of Eld, and his quest to reach the aforementioned tower. It is his ka, his destiny, to do so. In his travels, he draws three others to him - they become his ka-tet - and they fight not only to help him reach the tower but also to save existence itself.

Yeah, I'm glossing over the first six books a bit... but this is all about the finale, right? Say thankya.

I knew, going into the series, that Stephen King had written himself into the series. I recall reading a thread on Pajiba that talked about an upcoming movie adaptation. I read the comments and decided that I wanted to read the series for myself, but not before I caught that King had made himself a character. So I was expecting him to make an appearance... but I wasn't expecting him to use himself in such a meta fashion. And, to be honest, I found his presence rather frustrating. As I read the first 5 books, I found myself becoming engrossed in Roland's world(s), becoming invested in these characters, and wanting to know what would happen when Roland's ka-tet finally reached that damn tower. But King's presence took me out of that world. And then, in the final book, King steps in and saves the characters from a villain named Dandelo by introducing a deus ex machina... that he specifically calls out as such.

Talk about breaking the glammar.

But what about the tower, you may be asking? Well, Roland does reach it, and I actually wasn't too surprised at what he finds. Ka, after all, is a wheel.

And he reaches it without his ka-tet at his side. I found myself tearing up as one character after another reached the clearing at the end of the path... but the epilogue turned those tears into ones of joy.

I have my quibbles. King can be incredibly loquacious and blather on and on for pages, like when describing the journey the characters went on to reach Odd Lane, but then be frustratingly vague about other things. Like the Crimson King - all that build-up about this hugely important villain, only to have him undone by a f*cking eraser? And who the hell was he? This entire time, I expected him to be revealed as Merlyn, in line with the whole "Arthur the Eld" theme.

But King would probably say I was missing the point. To me, it seems the whole idea is that he has no control over what he writes, but that it controls him. Like poor Roland, who is fated to make that long, treacherous, and lonely trek to the tower ad infinitum... until he gets it just right. To King and his gunslinger, it's all about the journey, not the destination... no matter how much it calls one's name.