Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Tis The Season, It's Always The Real Thing (Holidays Are Coming...)

Book09: "The Christmas List" by Richard Paul Evans

Trust me when I say that being away from family and friends during the big, family-oriented holidays blows. This perpetual suckness is worsened when you spend it 1) in a war zone, and 2) in a Muslim country where the mere mentioning of Christ and his yearly birthday party are equal to spitting in someone’s face (just joking; nationals are mostly indifferent). Since I cannot be serenaded 24/7 by Christmas jams on the radio or in the mall, and I dont have the option of watching “Bad Santa” on FX or spending twenty four straight hours watching “The Christmas Story” on TBS, I decided I needed to fill myself with the Christmas cheer in a more accessible-to-Afghanistan media form: bookage. As such, I found author Richard Paul Evans. For something like the last ten years, Mr. Evans has written a Christmas-oriented book, all of which seem to have positive reviews from online readers. After sifting through Evans’ catalog of written Christmas works, I settled on this year’s work: “The Christmas List”.

The Christmas List” by Richard Paul Evans is, for all intents and purposes, a modern day re-imagining of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”. The story revolves around James Kier, a wealthy business man from Utah who has been a very bad boy, particularly to those closest to him and other business associates/partners (stop me if you’ve heard this one before…well, except for the Utah part). As with most Christmas stories, this is a tale of redemption, and Mr. Kier is in need of it this holiday season. However, unlike other retellings of Dickens’ classic (i.e. “Scrooged”), “The Christmas List” focuses less on the attempt to make Kier see the error of his ways and more on his actual path to redemption, which, unlike the other works, takes longer than one magical night.

Despite desperately wanting to enjoy this book, I did not. I was looking for something to get me into the holiday spirit, even if it was cheesy as hell, but this book did not do it for me (and that’s coming from someone who enjoys the Governator and Sinbad in “Jingle All the Way”). Each scene was given its own chapter, a number of which were short, some spanning no more than four pages. This gave the book a very screenplay-like feel, and not a good one. The characters were also very bland. I thought they were one-dimensional with no depth or believable self-conflict, and when (some) of them do change their outlook at the end of the book, it’s unconvincing. And no character is more guilty of this than the protagonist, James Kier.

This being the story of James Kier’s redemption during the Christmas season, he does change, but as I said of the other characters, it’s unconvincing. The first hinting of Kier is through his obituary (I wont explain now), and then through other characters’ discussion of him. Both paint Kier as a ruthless business man with no remorse for fair play or the outcomes of others; his only focus is gaining more money for himself. That works. It’s what I expected. However, when we meet Kier, he doesn’t fully embody the evil business man persona others have painted him as. In some early scenes, he seems downright reluctant to be that evil (his lawyer seems more heartless than he does). While this is a hinting at the “he wasn’t always this evil/there’s still a good man in there” play, I would have preferred for him to be an absolutely disgusting human being, which would have made the change even more significant.

Additionally, his reason for change was also entirely unconvincing. Thought to be dead by the public, Kier reads his obituary online as well as the comments section of the article. Suffice it to say, most every poster was left searching for something positive to say about Kier, and this is what convinced him to try to change his ways. Now, just like the “there’s still a good man in there” play I mentioned earlier, I believe this was Evans’ attempt to show the reader that redemption and change from bad to good does not just happen overnight, and may even happen for the wrong reason. It’s a gradual process that takes time to fully realize, and that’s true. I just don’t think Evans was able to express that metamorphosis well.

Small note: I was also a bit disappointed that there weren’t any supernatural elements to the story. “A Christmas Carol” and most retellings of the story involved the Ghosts of Christmas Past/Present/Future in some capacity, and I think that supernatural/metaphoric representation was part of the fun of the story. That element was missing from “The Christmas List”, and my enjoyment suffered for it.

Evans’ latest Christmas novel, though recommended by other readers, did not fill me with Christmas cheer. The writing was elementary, the characters uninteresting, and the dialogue bland. The only enjoyable passages were Evans’ description of Christmas atmosphere, but these were few and far between, and ultimately not able to save this book. I can’t speak for his other books, but after reading “The Christmas List”, I’m wary of trying Evans’ other books. I’d have a better time finding my holiday cheer in a movie, perhaps one where Zooey Deschanel sings a Christmas classic with Will Ferrell. In fact, I think I’ll do that now. Merry Christmas.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

This Is All So Crazy, Everybody Seems So Famous...

Book08: "Eating the Dinosaur" by Chuck Klosterman

I love Chuck Klosterman, but at this point, I’m not sure if I love him because I agree with what he writes, or I agree with what he writes because I love him. I’ve been following Klosterman’s work for around four years now, and it all started on a whim. I randomly picked up “Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto” and became enamored with how he could take (what seemed to be) the shallowest parts of pop culture, pick it apart so insightfully, and in the end tie it all back up and deliver commentary that seemed to speak hidden truths about our society. Klosterman returns to form in “Eating the Dinosaur”.

Eating the Dinosaur” is Chuck Klosterman’s sixth published book, and harkens back to the format of “Sex, Drugs…” as a collection of unpublished essays. As such, the chapters of “Eating” do not exactly flow together like other BOOKS. In fact, every chapter focuses on a different subject entirely. In the first chapter, Klosterman comments on the nature of celebrity interviews, tangentially mentioning Jennifer Aniston and her “Friends” and Prince’s image-marketing prowess during the 80’s and 90’s; in the second, he jumps to a comparison and contrast of Kurt Cobain and Nirvana’s album “In Utero” to David Koresh and his Waco Branch Davidians. Reading the chapters (or even the smaller sectioned essays within the chapters) as lone entities unto themselves leaves them just as they are: separate essays and ideas and thoughts that Klosterman wrote, perhaps, over an expanse of time, independent of each other. That alone would make them interesting enough. After all, who wouldn’t be interested in the relationship between Rivers Cuomo, Ralph Nader, and “Friday Night Lights”? However, I think Klosterman’s writing has reason beyond that, and it may in fact define the purpose (if I can call it that) of pop culture commentary.

At its foundation, Klosterman’s ideas (whether it be why sports enthusiasts have a particular distaste over the bust of Ralph Sampson’s career or why the Wildcat formation is the current flavor of the week for football teams at every level) are an explanation of pop culture’s relationship with us, society. In every example, it seemed like Klosterman was defining the relationship between society and pop culture (whether it be ABBA or laugh tracks), and then looking at how each party’s intent and reactions shaped each other. His formula seems to be 1) pick a subject, 2) talk about what society typically thinks about subject, 3) delve into what subject really meant to be or wanted to be or actually was, 4) talk about why that did/didn’t happen because of how society reacted to subject, and 5) conclude. Now, that outline is simple and in no way does justice to the work or incredible insight Klosterman has on our society, but I think it simply explains why we (maybe just me) care about pop culture. We care about that relationship we have with pop culture. Fads and celebrity and fame don’t come about out of thin air, on a whim, or solely as a result of the work/intent/will of the subject. We are in a give-and-take, symbiotic relationship with pop culture. We shape it and define it, and in return, it does the same of us. And Chuck Klosterman draws out and discusses that relationship better than most anyone else I know.

Eating the Dinosaur” is essentially more of what I love about Chuck Klosterman’s writing. Pop culture is somewhat of a guilty pleasure where “Top Gun” and “Lost” and Miley Cyrus are not (OF COURSE) considered with the same weight as other, more intellectual works. But that’s what I love about Klosterman’s work. His writing gives me the guilty pleasure of shallow, useless pop culture (in fact, he seems to roll around in it as much, if not more so, than I do), but presents it and discusses it in an intelligent and insightful manner that makes me less guilty over my infatuation and, sometimes, makes me feel smarter for reading it.

And if I incorrectly used words (i.e. “novel”), then FCK YOURSELF.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

There's gotta be a way to sing "Zombie Nation"...

Book07: "World War Z" by Max Brooks

Though I thoroughly enjoy the subject matter, my "experience" with zombies is pretty limited. As young as I am, it's mostly based around "Resident Evil" and other similar video games, "28 Days Later", "Shaun of the Dead" (an absolute favorite), and the most recent "Zombieland". When I saw the cover of "World War Z"by Max Brooks, it got me thinking. It was dark and a bit desolate, hinting at the rough side of war, the grittiness of it, and there was blood and the word "zombie". It was enough for my imagination to sell the book to me. Unfortunately, my imagination was far more exciting than anything the book had to offer.

The idea of the origin of zombies in "WWZ" wasn't dull. It centered around zombie-ism being a disease of some sort, rather than being born of the sci-fi/supernatural. Of course, it isn't the first time this notion of zombies was pushed out (i.e. Resident Evil, 28 Days Later), and I always found the concept interesting (same with vampirism being a sort of disease). The dull part was the delivery. The story is told through a series of interviews with various people from around the world who experienced WWZ. The characters ranged from doctors and scientists to politicians to members of different forms of military to regular civilians. The interviews were divided into eight "chapters", each chronicling a different time frame or area in the war: Warnings (pre-war), Blame, The Great Panic (when everyone started freaking), Turning The Tide, Home Front USA, Around The World And Above, Total War, and Good-Byes.

Each interview was bland. The characters were not interesting at all. Every chapter, (nearly) every anecdote was like a history lesson of the war, and not the good kind. It was like I was in AP Government again, but instead of watching news documentaries about Vietnam or the Gulf War, it was a fictional count of a war with zombies. I wasn't around for Orson Welles' "War of the Worlds" radio broadcast, so I cant personally say how effective that "realistic" approach to a sci-fi idea went, but Max Brooks did not have it. The characters were uninteresting; they had no personal voice. Every account sounded like the same person just stating a different view. Brooks' characters had no depth, no emotions or reactions you could believe. Nearly every character's interview sounded staged, like they were reading lines from a play or a really bad monologue. On top of that, they would all say cliche things like, "Who could have been ready for this?" or "Those cries will be with me for the rest of my life." Honestly, it was like a high schooler wrote the dialogue; an unimaginative high schooler. It was like that scene in "X-Men" when Storm was fighting the Toad and delivered the worst line in the movie. The dialogue made "WWZ" feel campy. And for a book using anecdotal interviews as a vehicle for narrating the story, that's the one thing you cannot get wrong.

Another aspect of the book that bothered me had to do with some of the people who were interviewed. It makes sense to interview politicians who ran departments in charge of solving and containing the threat, or the military men and women who had to face the threat head on as part of their duties, but Brooks went a bit off the deep end. Why do I care about an interview with a guy who was scuba diving for zombies? Or a guy who became a dog handler during war because he stopped a couple of random dudes on the side of the street from eating a dog? It was like a slow news day. It was like the Interviewer ran out of good people to get stories from, but he was three thousand words short of a complete story, so he just threw those guys in to meet the criteria. I'll let it be known now: if our world does in fact go into a war with zombies, I do not want to see the news running stories and interviews about guys who went undersea diving for zombies or a guy who became a dog handler during the war.

The only chapter that I did enjoy and felt some emotions with was the final chapter, "Good-Byes". It's basically an epilogue for the story, the interviewer coming back to characters introduced earlier in the book, and their accounts of life after liberation. I think it was by far the shortest chapter, with most interviews lasting no more than a page or so long. I dont know if it was the brevity of the pieces, but Brooks really got to the emotions of the characters, and it wasnt campy or corny; it was real. Maybe it was the hope thanks to survival or the desperation and disgust due to what was lost, but for the first time in the book, the characters felt like real people telling sharing their real feelings.

Despite being a novel approach to telling a story, Brooks wasn't able to hook me and pull me deep into the story. I think a lot of the plot and the events that were described sounded like what would happen to our world if we ever found ourselves battling zombies, but the lack of believable characters and story telling made it all sound like no more than political ponderings rather than a story. That hint of realism may have worked in his "How To" guide due to being a bit ironic and tongue-in-cheek, but it didnt carry over into "WWZ". If you allow me to be equally campy, "World War Z" was a lot like the zombies in the book.....dead! (Right?? Right??? Because the book was boring, and boring things make you seem like you're dead...! And zombies are dead...!)

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

There Goes My Hero, He's Ordinary...

Book06: "Friday Night Lights" by H. G. Bissinger

“Friday Night Lights” by Harry Gerard Bissinger is the story of the 1988 Permian Panther High School football team from Odessa, Texas. In order to write the novel, Bissinger quit his sports writing job in Philadelphia to move to Odessa so that he could accurately follow the Permian Panthers throughout their season as they strove for the highest honor of all: winning the state championship.

Being a sports writer, it comes as no surprise that Bissinger perfectly chronicles the highlights and the edge-of-your-seat plays throughout each of Permian’s games. However, “Friday Night Lights” is much more than a simple book about a great high school football team. The true strength of Bissinger’s novel is how he perfectly captures the relationship between Odessa and the Permian football team. The town of Odessa, once a gold rush of oil fields but lately a community in the dumps, rests its every last hope, its every happiness in life, and the town’s entire identity on the Permian Panthers. Since its inception in 1959, the Permian Panther varsity football team has always been a force to be reckoned with in the arena of Texas high school football. Over the years, they’ve won a number of district, regional, and state championships, and as such, the people of Odessa have come to expect no less than a championship team every year. Living in a town riddled with poverty, crime, and no way out of their abysmal lives, there literally is nothing else the people can take pride in other than this team. As such, the town gives everything to these young “gods”. The starters get a free pass in class, whether it’s in attendance or a passing grade, alcohol and drugs are provided to them like candy, and they are absolved of any and every transgression. The players happily accept their status above the rules, and many live for it. It is a fair trade when all they need to do is provide the town a championship team. However, when games result in losses and winning a championship becomes questionable, the town easily turns on their heroes. The pressure of this highest of highs and lowest of lows relationship with the town takes its toll on the players.

Bissinger closely covers the top starters of the Permian Panthers team: Boobie Miles, the senior star fullback who is more than ready to accept his role in the spotlight; Mike Winchell, the under-sized QB1 who must lead this team to a championship despite his own insecurities; Ivory Christian, the middle linebacker and probably best player on the team, who fights a love-hate battle over football within himself; Don Billingsley, a halfback, known more for causing trouble in town than playing on the field as his father had done twenty years ago, a former star of the Permian Panthers; and Brian Chavez, an outlier in Odessa who dreams of attending Harvard after graduation. From day one, these players, along with all others on the team, sacrifice every part of their being for the sake of football, whether it be playing through injuries and refusing medical treatment so that they can continue to play, or the emotional and psychological stress that comes with feeling the weight of an entire town on your shoulders. Despite all these unrelenting troubles, and the treatment they receive when things take a turn for the worse, these teenagers press on all for one reason: this is what they’ve wanted to do since they were mere children who could barely understand the game of football. Their entire lives have been tailored so that they could one day be the heroes of this broken town, and they will not give it up. It’s not just a dream; it’s their sole reason for being. The relationship with football is intoxicating, a drug with the highest of highs and the lowest of lows, one that the players refuse to give up, and one the town will ride with them hand-in-hand.

“Friday Night Lights” completely captures the culture of Odessa, a culture that can no doubt be found in various other small towns across the country. There’s both good and bad in the culture of these towns. On one hand, it’s a time capsule of old America, where people left their doors unlocked in case a neighbor needs to use their stove, where kids waved American flags, where the townspeople prayed in church together on Sundays, and where the people believed in hard work. On the other hand, it has the worst aspects, where the word “nigger” is openly used without hesitation, where people vandalize the head coach’s car and home just because they lost, and where you were useless and less than nothing if you could not perform for the team. “Friday Night Lights” is a great story of hope and struggle and determination and, for good or bad, believing wholeheartedly in something as small and as big as high school football.