Monday, March 31, 2008
Having only finished Northanger Abbey a week or so ago, jumping into Persuasion may not have been a good idea. However, after excessive amounts of engineering, my little heart cried out for Austen, my bathtub and a bottle of Shiraz. Like Sandra Dee, to my heart I must be true.
Back story: I picked up Northanger Abbey and Persuasion (along with I Walked the Line, by Vivian Cash) at a used/new bookstore in Pendleton, SC about two months ago. None were used. Persuasion set me back $2.50 plus tax. Point being, the edition pictured here is hella cheap.
I am now 68 pgs into the 188 page volume. Time enough to blog a bit. My initial impression of this book wasn't good. I'm pretty sure it's because of my recent reading (and loving) of Northanger Abbey. The styles are really different. I mean, it's still Austen, but Persuasion was written more than ten years later and has a much more formal feel. It certainly isn't as funny, but the personal anguish is deeper and more respected. In short, Persuasion criticizes most of the characters (as in -Abbey) but not it's heroine. Anne's emotions are taken very seriously and given much weight.
Now that I'm into Persuasion I am enjoying it. Synopsis thusfar (spoiler-free really, most of this is on the back cover): Elizabeth, Anne and Mary are sisters, their mother is dead. Elizabeth is the incarnation of her father (the baronet), vain, beautiful, and proud. Mary (the only married sister) is also excessively proud and uses Anne as a personal servant. Elizabeth rather ignores Anne and has no use for her at all. Anne is neither fair, nor proud. Years ago she was engaged to a charismatic naval officer, but their neighbor and family friend Lady Russell put an end to it (she thought a navy man below Anne's rank).
As the story begins the family has fallen upon financial difficulties, and has decided to move from their home at Kellynch to a smaller place at Bath. The Kellynch house is to be rented to an Admiral Croft, who happens to be the brother-in-law of Anne's ex. Drama ensues as her jilted lover begins a relationship with one of her neighbors.
Mostly, I'm engaged by the uncertainty of this story. I want to believe that Anne will end up with her old flame, and it seems like an Austen-y thing to do, but at this point I don't see how it will happen. Ah, the tangled web!
Saturday, March 29, 2008
As predicted it took me less than another day to finish 21. It did take me a bit longer to get to blogging. 'Tev.
I did like that as the reader, I could really tell that the jig was up, but not all the characters were ready to let it go. On the other hand, it could have been written better, to really suck you into the drama and fear and suspense, and I think the writer failed there.
I know it was based on a real story, but I was hoping for a little more violence. There was really just that one scene where Martinez gets roughed up in Vegas, but Kevin never sees any of that. I'm hoping for more in the movie version.
I also wanted a little more about their shadowy ring-leader--his past, his involvement in their crash-and-burn. I guess a lot of people were reluctant to contribute to the book.
At the end of the book, there is an essay by "Kevin Lewis" on how to win at blackjack in Vegas, which is sort of cool, but was boring for me, a non-gambler. Plus just reading the book basically tells you pretty much everything included. Finally (in my printing), the epilogue is an interview with Lewis, years after the book was originally released. He talks about people's response to the book and his family. It was okay. It didn't add a lot, but it wasn't totally worthless.
This was the author, Ben Mezrich's, first attempt at nonfiction. I'd be curious to read some of his fiction books and see if they are all as self-involved as this one. It's interesting because he seems to be really trying to give Kevin Lewis all the glory, he's just completely incapable of removing himself from the story. In that I'm sure his fiction would be much better, because he'd just personify himself in his characters. I sort of wonder if Lewis liked the way the novel turned out. In his interview he seems pleased with the fame, the notoriety, but he's pretty much a badass, so why wouldn't he? Still, if it was me, I'd probably be a little disappointed in the overall quality of the writing.
Final verdict: Awesome story, so-so writing, definitely worth the read.
Thursday, March 27, 2008
I swear I really tried to start chapter-by-chapter on Love in the Time of Cholera, but opening scene is about some guy who just killed himself and it was too depressing to read on vacation. So instead we have this:
21: Bringing Down the House by Ben Mezrich
There is a movie opening Friday starring Kevin Spacey. If you are wondering if I'll finish the book in time to catch in in theaters, the answer is yes. I read 127 of the 264 pages yesterday.
Because it is a face-paced, easy-to-read, thriller? Because I have too much time on my hands? Because it is hard to put down? Yes, yes and yes.
The story is fascinating. It's the true story of 6 M.I.T. students who made millions in Vegas playing blackjack. The main character, Kevin Lewis, wanted the book written and told the story to Mezrich. He also gave him access to a lot of the people involved. The parts about Kevin are written in 3rd person, omniscient and you get the feeling that Kevin's voice is quite strong throughout. That plot line progresses chronologically, and without too much foreshadowing outside what Kevin himself was thinking at the time.
A second plot line is woven in, this one the story of the author's experiences doing interviews and gathering information for the story. It's less chronological and (obviously) all takes place long after Kevin's history. This part is written in 1st person. The Kevin bits are awesome. The Mezrich bits are kind of terrible. He seems like an egomaniac. I really can't understand why he'd think that his experiences interviewing card-counters are even close to as interesting or important as the thoughts of the counters themselves. While it is fun to get a flash-forward to the real characters and see what their post-Vegas lives are like, I really could care less about the author's nervousness at a shotting range, or his insecurity talking to Vegas heavyweights.
Despite that last little rant, the story itself is amazing, and the book is really fast-paced and the tone and use of language match the excitement of the events really well. I recommend it highly. I'll post again in like 6 hours when I finish it.
Sunday, March 23, 2008
Northanger Abbey is the first novel finished by Jane Austen. I read it in about 24 hours in Florida. It's quite short (particularly compared to the expansive Emma) and extremely amusing. I think I enjoyed it equally to Pride and Prejudice and more than Sense and Sensibility.
Like her other novels, it's a love story wrought with the intrigues of England and is critical of the society of the time. Unlike her others it lacks subtlety. It is fantastically sarcastic. The overuse of positive, flattering adjectives borders on cruel. Most of the characters are atrocious, empty-headed, superficial assholes—disguised as very good friends. They are just horrible. On the other side, there are three 'heroes' if you will, who are nearly beyond reprimand, flawless.
The novel (as her first attempt) isn't entirely without fault. The flowery language which mocks the speech patterns of the time is sort of hard to read in parts. Not only is the dialogue in this pattern, but the author uses it herself and addresses the reader directly. There is also some imbalance between the plot and the tangents of social commentary, particularly regarding horror novels and the importance of dress, art, music and theater.
Nonetheless, the heroine, Catherine, is quite likable (despite her excessive kindness and goodwill) and her ignorance is endearing. If the book was longer than 211 pages I think I'd find her tiresome, but it doesn't so she's perfect.
Basically, I highly recommend this book. It has a distinctly different voice from other Austen novels and is much more humorous and blatant in its judgment of English society and women in general.
I know the posts on this are few and far between. I will now attempt to make up for that by a topical summary. (For the record, I'm posting from a lovely condo in Clearwater, Florida while Kerry watches baseball. Life is goooood.)
Ch. 1 Khobar Towers
Before this reading I didn't know much about the terrorist attack on Khobar Towers that killed 19 American soldiers. Probably because it happened when I was 12 and I wasn't really up on foreign affairs at that point in my life. Another contributing factor in my ignorance was the way it was handled by the Clinton administration. This chapter is very telling about the political climate in DC under Prez Bill and the U.S.'s general policy on terror before 9/11. While the facts surrounding the lengthy investigation were interesting, I was more moved by the legal and personal nuances. Based on this, I would consider reading other accounts of events during the Clinton administration or about the inner workings of Washington, including Bill's auto- My Life. I own it and have read some of it, but his style is sort of broad and wandering and it lasts like 800 pgs.
Ch. 2 "Only If I Yell 'Duck!'"
I enjoy the naming conventions on the chapters. This chapter covers Freeh's appointment as FBI Director including his first meeting with Pres. Clinton and his decision-making process. It's really a long chapter about how the appointment happened and the prelude to the disintegration of his relationship with the president. It seems in large part due to the falsely positive start. It seemed at first that things would be great, that the position was defined the same way for both men, but that turned out to be untrue. This is a less interesting chapter in that it deals only with Freeh's personal decisions and hopes and disappointments, though it does lay the groundwork for a lot of the future conflict.
Ch. 3 "You're Not Really College Material"
Haha, New Jersey sucks as does Catholic School. This chapter is all about Freeh's family history and growing up in Jersey. It's as charming as any story of an immigrant family in the big city. Freeh's mom is a quality character.
Ch. 4 "The FBI? You're Crazy!"
From undergrad to joining the FBI as an agent, this is a particularly amusing chapter. It talks about Freeh's days as a sort of sheltered college kid in one aspect, while covering his history on the docks in a union run by the mob. Fun for the whole family. There are also some funny anecdotes about being a rookie in the New York/New Jersey FBI and his first few assignments as such.
Ch. 5 "The Kid's Got Nothing to Do with It"
This starts getting into the good stuff, it talks a lot about how the FBI broke the Cosa Nostra as a combined effort at home and in Sicily. There are a lot of funny stories (what isn't funny about the mafia?) and its really interesting how the powers that be changed the standard attack protocol to make a real difference under extremely dangerous conditions. This bit of work really made Freeh's career in a lot of ways.
He talks about leaving the FBI to be an attorney in the Southern District of New York in this chapter and that landed him an awesome job prosecuting the Donnie Brasco case (a la the movie "Donnie Brasco" starring Johnny Depp.) The whole thing is so fascinating it's no wonder it was made into a movie. I long to reread The Godfather.
Ch. 6 "That's Moody's Bomb"
So the whole mob thing got Freeh assigned to a serial bomber case in the south that eventually led to the arrest of Walter Moody. The case itself is interesting, but more than that is the confusion in a case like this. The bombs were sent to different states, different jurisdictions, judges were targeted, it was a mess. It all worked out, but even Freeh seems to feel there is a bit of luck in tearing apart the bureaucracy so that people can do their jobs.
It was during the whole Moody debacle that Freeh was appointed a U.S. District judge. The second half of the chapter talks about the challenges of that, one of which is the government salary. It also talks about a pivotal moment when a witness for the prosecution, a federal agent lied on the stand and how that impacted the case. That tailspins into a lot of stories jumping forward on the topic of ethics. Somehow Elie Wiesel gets involved.
Ch. 7 "If Anything Happens, You Drive. I'll Shoot."
Finally, Freeh is director of the FBI. We hear about the transition and the differences between him and his predecessor. The whole Washington machine is sort of unbelievable, like the FBI not getting enough funding for bullets so that agents had to cut their training time to save bullets. Its all outrageous. There is a lot more about the turf wars and the antiquated laws and policies that just don't move with changing technology that make it difficult for the FBI to operate. As it turns out, FBI agents on TV have a lot more freedom and resources than in real life. Probably there was at one time more sophisticated technology on the set than in FBI headquarters.
Freeh talks some more about his home life and the difficulties of the job, but he really doesn't complain. I have a lot of respect for that. Awesometown.
Ch. 8 "…and the Guy's Bob Hanssen"
Ooooh a Russian spy in the FBI. How fantastic!
The chapter kicks off with the Oklahoma City Bombing and the pursuit and capture of Timothy McVeigh. All very compelling and stuff present in my memory.
Next he talks about mistakes made at the FBI, lost evidence and facts wielding to public pressure and political correctness and the like. Next, the bomb at the Atlanta Olympics, more fun with explosions. Not to let the theme go we next get a detailed dossier on the Unabomber.
Finally, finally we get to the spy bit which is not quite as glamorous as I'd hoped, but it is a true story and the basis for the movie Breach starring Ryan Phillippe and Chris Cooper.
Ch. 9 Bill and Me
All about the many investigations of then-president Bill Clinton. Hillary's involvement in some of that nonsense kind of makes me want a little more information on some of these illegal activities. There were lots of problems, mistakes made by Clinton and Freeh both. What is interesting is the excess on Clinton's side, his inability to turn back once he got going the wrong direction. Still, there isn't anything dull about the Clinton circus.
Ch. 10 9/11
There is a lot of hindsight and sadness here. The actual attack took place after Freeh left the FBI, but all the warnings and missed prevention were on his watch and you can tell he took it very hard. He makes a lot of (not accusations but) charges that spread the blame all over Washington. It's hard to say (based on this account) if anything could have been done to stop it. I mean, obviously it could have been stopped, but the political climate, the public attitude, was such that no body was going to pull all the strings that would have gotten the FBI, CIA or NSA in a place to stop it. Technology and funding were a big factor, as well as Congress' attitude about terrorism and security vs. public opinion.
Freeh adds an epilogue but it is more on this same theme about the differences in the post-9/11 world. His afterword is all about his private sector job after he left the FBI and is pretty boring.
Anyway, I loved this book and highly recommend it as some compelling, interesting, relevant non-fiction.
Friday, March 21, 2008
Tuesday, March 18, 2008
Monday, March 10, 2008
Sometimes people do the wrong things for what they believe are the right reasons. In Atonement, Briony believed that Robbie was a sex fiend, so she used her imagination to fill in the blanks after Lola was attacked. In Gone Baby Gone, every single character does the wrong thing in an attempt to put everything right. In The Memory Keeper's Daughter, David Henry gives away his daughter, born with Down syndrom, because he thinks this will spare his wife pain. Nobody is right, but nobody is really entirely wrong. It's this morally ambiguous theme that I find very interesting in stories, whether they be novels or films.
But Memory Keeper doesn't really rate up there with Atonement and Gone Baby Gone (which I just saw this weekend, that's why it's fresh in my mind [also, you should rent it, it's good]). The choice the doctor makes in the book is so clearly wrong, whereas in GBG, there really isn't a right answer (I'm being intentionally vague where the movie is concerned, I don't want to give anything away). He gives his daughter away to the nurse, to save his wife pain. He had a sister with a heart condition that died young, and people with Down syndrome often have heart problems. So, his reasoning is somewhat understandable. But he tells his wife that their daughter died, as though that wouldn't be painful. At least he just didn't give her away because she was mentally handicapped, I don't think I could have read the whole story. The character would have been completely different, more evil instead of just confused. Also, the repercussions of the secret are deep and do effect everyone in the story, but perhaps not as catastrophically as the lie in Atonement. But perhaps my views are a little biased, because Atonement is my favorite book I've read so far this year. Maybe if I had read Memory Keeper first I would have liked it better.
The ending I felt was a little anticlimactic. Maybe that's because it had a somewhat happy ending, which really isn't what I thought would happen based on the premis of the novel. Of course, as Abby pointed out in the comments for my first entry about Memory Keeper, the description did say something about the "redemptive power of love," so I knew I was looking at a happyish ending. I guess I could go on for a while, but I won't.
The reviewers on Amazon have given this book 3 stars out of five. That sounds about right.
Now, on to Middlesex!
Tuesday, March 4, 2008
If you're looking for a way to spread the love of reading, the Dewey Donation System is in the midst of their annual book drive. I just donated 4 books to the Children's Institute in LA.
Visit the website: http://deweydonationsystem.org/
Monday, March 3, 2008
Sunday, March 2, 2008
I'm really enjoying My FBI, I'm about a third of the way through. The first chapter was all about the bombing of the Khobar Towers, and did not reflect well on the Clinton Administration. I hate to hear bad things about Bill (he's my homeboy) but I was never really up on foreign policy in the '90s. Anyway, the Khobar Towers debacle sort of pushed right through the end of Freeh's stint as Director of the FBI, and therefore, is chronologically the end of the saga.
The second chapter has so far covered his entire childhood and jumped right up to Bill Clinton convincing Freeh to take the job. This chapter was kinder to Mr. Clinton. Apparently, it is impossible not to like the man on first impression. Also, Freeh thinks he's the single best politician of his generation. I'm not sure yet if that's a compliment.
Sidenote: the chapters are really long. So I'm still in the 2nd chapter.
Yeah, so its out of order, but it's really interesting, compelling reading. Rarely have I been able to read about any event with so much circumspection. Not only do you see the event--all the facts plus the details provided by hindsight-- but you also get the microcosm of internal politics and personal motives and the macroscopic impact of decisions made by people in power.
I'm now thoroughly convinced that I do not belong in government, nor any position where so much is at stake. Waaaay too much pressure. Freeh seems to deal with it well. I'm liking the man. Even though he's from Jersey.