Sunday, January 31, 2010

6. Les mardis de Béatrice de Francine Tougas

This year I am making an effort to improve my french. I get by, but have been stuck on a plateau. One of the challenges with reading here in Quebec is that a lot of the classes you take will recommend books by french authors, which can be great, but are often written in a much more complex form and use a wide range of vocabulary. The dialogue is also nothing like the way people speak in the world around you here in Quebec. So I have been looking around for books by Quebec authors which reflect the actual language of Quebec. One friend, recommended Les mardis de Béatrice, written by her mother! Francine Tougas is an actress and writer in the Quebec television and movie scene.

Les mardis de Béatrice is the story of a professional woman who is seeing a therapist. Each chapter is a session, basically dialogue between the two. She is feisty, resistant but suffering enough from inner anguish that she is driven to keep coming back. I'm of two minds on the subject of psychology. My mother is a professional psychologist and she has spent most of her career working with sexually abused children and disadvantaged adults. She believes strongly that there is an unhappy state and that people can through therapy find ways to get to a happy state. My father on the other hand is completely against most forms of self-improvement and thinks the world is what it is and you just handle it as it comes to you. I go back and forth, having seen the good of both approaches.

The first half of this book definitely made me fall to my father's side of the equation. All of this woman's problems seemed to be the result of living in a free and wealthy society where people suddenly have enough leisure time to start worrying about their problems. It was actually kind of maddening and I didn't know if I could make it through the book. Fortunately, in terms of the language, it was very much what I was looking for, with lots of dialogue written the way people speak here. So it was easier for me to get through, enjoyable to read (it sounded very much like what I hear around me so that is a compliment to the writer) and educational as I finally got to see in written form many of the phrases and modes of speaking that they never teach you in a french class.

(For instance, the word pantoute which means not at all and I believe is a mutation of pas-de-tout is used all the time here. Good luck finding it in a dictionary.)

So I kept plodding through and the book does become more interesting as Béatrice reveals some darker facts about her background that give substance to her lonely, defensive condition. The narrative never really takes off nor arrives at a revelatory climax. Rather the story arc is more concerned with whether or not she'll continue her therapy and her relationship with the therapist. There was some slightly weird father-daughter dialogue and a tiny bit of behaviour by the therapist at the end that seemed to cross the line that creeped me out just a tad.

I suspect that Les mardis de Béatrice is a fairly accurate reenactment of a real series of sessions between a modern woman and her therapist and if that is interesting to you, you'll probably enjoy the book and find lots to think about. But don't look for a stronger story beyond that.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

5. The Body Snatchers by Jack Finney

The Body Snatchers is the original novel, written in 1955, that the better-known movies "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" were based on. I was mildly surprised to see that it was written by the same author of Time and Again. I guess he has had a fairly long and varied writing career (and as I see in Wikipedia was considered a genre author).

The Body Snatchers is written from the perspective of the town doctor. He's a younger man, getting over a divorce, with deep roots in the small Norther California town. The first sign that something untoward is happening is when an old high school girlfriend comes to his office to tell him how worried she is about her best friend. The best friend is convinced that her uncle is not himself, even though he looks and acts exactly the same. After briefly investigating this, the doctor starts to get patients making similar claims about other friends or family members. They can't put their finger on it, but there is just something off about them.

This is an enjoyable and quickly paced book and the adventure takes off when a farmer living out of town tells him about a strange body he found in his basement. It's like a not-quite formed human. Skepticism is replaced with real fear as the doctor (now teamed up with his old flame and another couple) realizes that there is a real conspiracy going on.

I know the common interpretation of the movies is that the body-snatchers were a metaphor for the Red Scare of the period. I really didn't get that same sense from the book. The aliens are portrayed as so passionless, empty of any real ideology or values other than sheer survival. Finney puts a lot of emphasis on the small town and how it is decaying and I wonder if general modernity is more of the bugbear in the book than anything political. He really does a great job of describing the small town, all the good things about it coming out in relief in their absence as the protagonist sees the town of his upbringing being completely dangerous and fearful to him. There is a really freaky scene where he watches the entire town gather in the main square for some nefarious purpose, at first behaving normally (going shopping, doing their business) until the last bus drives out of town and then slowly starting to switch over to their real purpose.

Finney is a calm, almost mesmerizing writer. He likes to take his time to describe things, letting the reader's own eye wander over the landscape. Because of that tone, the book is not super stressful as one might expect. You do get a sense of the hopelessness the protagonists must feel as their town is taken over, but not the oppressive fear that such a situation would create (at least in me). He's also very peaceful and there is none of the revengeful violence that we see in today's species propaganda (or anti-propaganda as we see in Avatar).

I also appreciated that the strategy and operation of the aliens was well thought-out. Sure some of the science is pretty questionable, but it all fits together in its own internal logic and the reader isn't left with a lot of annoying questions about how things worked.

However, I did find the ending highly questionable. I appreciated the theme of it, but didn't find it believable at all. (scroll down for some spoilers where I explain myself better).

Still, a great read and deserves an important place in the history of alien invasion literature. I think I need to check out the film adaptations, as I've only seen the Donald Sutherland one and that was a long time ago.

[added after seeing the 1955 Don Siegel movie] Check this out from the wikipedia page on the original film adaptation of the movie:

Despite the general agreement among film critics regarding these political connotations of the film, lead actor Kevin McCarthy said in an interview included on the 1998 DVD release that he felt no political allegory was intended. The interviewer stated that he had spoken with the author of the original novel, Jack Finney, who also professed to have intended no specific political allegory in the work.[13]
In his autobiography, "I Thought We Were Making Movies, Not History," Walter Mirisch writes: "People began to read meanings into pictures that were never intended. The Invasion of the Body Snatchers is an example of that. I remember reading a magazine article arguing that the picture was intended as an allegory about the communist infiltration of America. From personal knowledge, neither Walter Wanger nor Don Siegel, who directed it, nor Dan Mainwaring, who wrote the script nor the original author Jack Finney, nor myself saw it as anything other than a thriller, pure and simple."[14]

And here are my thoughts on the movie itself, for posterity:
Inspired by having just read the book (which was originally published as a serial in Collier's), I downloaded the first Invasion of the Body Snatchers, directed by Don Siegel (they had a VSH copy at my local video store, but it was colorized!). Except for some minor changes and the ending, this is surprisingly faithful to the book and quite entertaining. It was shot on location in some real California small town in 1955 so it was quite pleasant to see all that brought to life. I still didn't see the strong Red Scare metaphor that gets attributed to this movie, except for two subtle cinematic touches (where the hero refers to the pod invasion as a "malignant disease spreading across America" text not found in the book and where he is running out in traffic trying to get someone to stop and he stares at the camera and screams "They're here already! You're next!"). It was a cool little movie and I'm looking forward to watching the '70s version next (with Donald Sutherland and a small role by Leonard Nimoy).

Here's a trailer for you, you can check out the screaming in traffic scene at the very end.


Just when all seems lost, the aliens give up and send themselves out into space again. Their reasoning is that they realize that humans will fight them to the death and will not accept them taking over even though they (the humans) won't actually go away, they'll just have a parisitic host as part of their being. I kind of like the idea that we are the ultimate fighters who will never give up (and this isn't portrayed as entirely a good thing in the book), but I don't see why we wouldn't attribute that same quality to all life. And these aliens had behaved in such a way it seemed as if they expected resistance. They carried out their plan so well that they took over almost the entire town and were ready to spread throughout the rest of the world and then because there are a few resisters who don't allow themselves to be taken over, they give up the fight and head back into space? No, seems way too easy and I think the dark ending of the '70s version is probably a better interpretation.

Monday, January 25, 2010

4. Hard Rain Falling by Don Carpenter

Hard Rain Falling is Don Carpenter's first novel, which has been brought out of relative obscurity in a New York Review of Books reprint with a forward by George Pellecanos. I got it for xmas. I'd never heard of the author before, but after completing his first novel, I think an argument could be made that he is an important American writer. He wrote steadily in his life until shooting himself at the age of 65 in the '90s. He had several debilitating illnesses, though I have yet to see confirmed that that was the reason for the suicide. His books were published but not super successful and he made most of his living writing for Hollywood.

Hard Rain Falling is the story of a man's life, starting with a brief recounting of how he was born and orphaned in the '30s. The rest of the book follows his wildlife from the streets of Portland, Oregon to his time in reform schools and prisons and to a sort of rehabilitation and attempt at comprehending a normal life in San Francisco. At several points, you think it is going to be a certain type of narrative (a crime story, a prison story and so on), but after a while you realize that it really is just about this one guy's life.

I'd like to provide a thematic summary here, but it is kind of difficult as there isn't really one. It's what made me enjoy the book. A lot goes on and the main character is intriguing, intelligent and very challenged by his own background. There are many different themes that come up along the way: maturity, isolation, love, the changing times (the book ends in the early '60s). None of them dominate. Each section of the book is a look at this man as he is in that stage of his life. I guess you could say there is a consistent theme of Jack Levitt trying to figure out who he is and how he should respond to life.

And it is quite a life. Jack's philosophical musings and his struggles are compelling, but the real pleasure for me were Carpenter's descriptions of the petty criminals of Portland's pool halls, of the prisons and their tenants, of San Francisco's night life in the '50s. I can see why George Pellecanos loves this book so much (though did he have to give away over half the narrative in the intro, which I wisely did not read until the end?). I've read a lot of crime fiction, but you don't often get to see it at the quotidian level with such richness and subtlety. He really gets into the world of gambling in pool halls in particular and it's pretty cool stuff.

Great book. I'm glad I read it. It moved me at the end.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

3. The Wolf's Hour by Robert McCammon

Doc favourably reviewed this book and kindly lent it to me when I expressed interest in it. It was disturbingly fat considering my poor reading progress last year, but I decided to jump in, recognizing that if done well, it should be a page-turner. I was a bit dismayed at the very beginning, because the prose was written in that American 80s best-seller style, which is just a bit too florid and obvious (it's the kind of book where every sexual encounter ends in a perfect simultaneous orgasm). Because it is trying to be British in style and the beginning takes place in Britain (towards whose genre writers I have a strong bias), this weakness was really pronounced. I was particularly dismayed to see someone driving a Ford around in northern Wales at the height of WWII.

Fortunately, there is a very strong story here and lots of good action and once it gets going, it really gets going. It has two storylines going on simultaneously, the hero's mission to find out a secret Nazi plot that will undermine D-Day and his own upbringing as a werewolf in a Russian forest. Both storylines are equally engaging and you can't wait to find out next. The WWII espionage story has the best Nazi badguys I've read in a while. It reminded me a lot of Inglorious Basterds, though perhaps even less subtle and with the werewolf element (a huge advantage if you ever have to go over enemy lines, believe me). The werewolf story is really cool as well, as the author put in a lot of thought about how such a tribe would survive and what they would be like. He portrays the werewolf behaviour using much more biology than we usually get, with them hunting, when in wolf form, small prey for food and pissing to mark their territory. He also uses his excellent scent in human form to help with his espionage, which is quite cool as well.

Very entertaining. I do agree with Doc that it went on a bit long near the end, but really it was such a fun read, with some cool ideas and kickass action, that I've utterly forgiven the florid prose and lack of subtlety. Had I read this when I was 15, I would have gone out and hunted down the rest of this guy's books for sure. As it is, I'll probably keep on the lookout.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

2. Uzumaki by Junji Ito

Uzumaki is a Japanese comic book ("manga" if you don't know by now) about a remoted, isolated town that suffers from a spiral curse. It manifests itself in many different ways, beginning with individuals obsessing with spirals and eventually getting into full blown craziness and destruction (I don't want to reveal any of the details because the fun is in finding them out). The english version is produced by Viz Comics and is in three elegantly small volumes, each of which contains 6 stories. At first the stories are isolated incidents, each built around some manifestation of the spiral curse but not really advancing the overall storyline beyond relating how weird this town is. These chapters reminded me a lot of the old EC comics, but viewed through the Japanese lens. Just weird (and sometimes quite disturbing) little episodes of horror that end with a clever twist. By the middle of the second volume, a greater narrative starts to pick up pace. In the last volume, the shit really hits the fan.

I wasn't expecting much with this, but I ended up really enjoying it. The horror here goes the distance and is quite creative as well. Though the ambience is really creepy, this is not the kind of J-horror which builds up tons of tension and then nothing ever happens. Shit really happens and it is gross and crazy. You can see a lot of the typical adolescenet sub-text and anxieties (obsessive boys, wanting to be popular, generational conflicts) but these themes are always secondary to the insanity so they don't become annoying. This is a quick fun read and there is some freaky crap in here. If you like horror and comics, I would strongly recommend Uzumaki. I know they made a movie which didn't manage to impress my wife too much, but now that I've read the comic, I may give it a second chance, just to see how they handle some of the crazy visuals.

I also note that when I remember Viz comics being the first company to start publishing english translations of Manga back during the black and white comics explosion of the '80s. It's great to see that they survived the ensuing crash and even appear to be thriving with the current manga boom. It sure seemed very marginal back then. What's also cool is that Uzumaki, and I guess a lot of the manga they publish, are organized to be read in the original Japanese order, from right to left, which takes some getting used to but is kind of cool.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

1. The Book of Basketball by Bill Simmons

I am a huge fan of Bill Simmons and a more reserved one of the NBA, so I obviously asked for the most highly-anticipated basketball books (actually, the only one) in my memory for xmas. And I got it! I am usually struggle with non-fiction, but I could barely put The Book of Basketball down during my vacation and finished all 700+ pages in under two weeks. Before I do a proper review of the book, I would like to talk about Bill Simmons himself a bit.

Bill Simmons is one of my heroes. In and of itself, this isn't all that special as I admire and respect many people in this world. What makes him stand out is that he is the only one who actually hails from my generation. After my brief stint working for during the .com boom, I became profoundly disappointed with my people. We have pretty much failed in doing anything good for the world except making parts of it richer. We borrowed the worst parts of our baby boomer predecessors (their ambition and self-involvement) and left all the difficult, good stuff on the ground (their radicalism, their critique of authority). We're the worst kind of sheep, responsible for 8 years of Bush and the SUV stroller. We've somehow managed to combine the extremes of right-wing righteousness with left-wing political-correctness to create a world of excessive consumption and excessive caution. There really isn't much we've done that I'm very proud of.

I know with that set-up it sounds like Simmons is some kind of wild radical. He's not. Fundamentally, he's a sports writer. But there are three elements that make him stand out politically for me: he made his career on his own terms, he embraced technological change and he is highly critical. All of this is mostly limited to the world of sports, but it is significant nonetheless. Sports is a huge business, second probably only to Hollywood in terms of America's cultural and economic influence on the world. (Sports is also the last domain in North America where people argue critically and honestly with any intelligence, but that's another discussion.) Because of his success (due to his skill and hard, consistent work) he has influenced his peers and a generation of readers. With the former, we are already seeing a sea change in the discourse of sports journalism (there are clearly many other factors and invidivuals involved in this change, but Simmons is one of the most significant), where writers are finally starting to find some balls (do you think we'll see another elephant in the room like steroids in baseball during the '90s?). I'll break the elements mentioned above out using Simmons-style structure:

He made his career on his own terms: He started out briefly working at the very bottom of a Boston newspaper, then quit and partied for a bit and then started his own website ( He was way ahead of his time here (and ahead of me as well, as I didn't jump on the bandwagon until he got to espn) and the success of his website led to him being hired as a regular columnist at His success at "The Worldwide Leader in Sports" coincided (and helped) the growth of the website and the web in general for sports information and allowed him a lot of creative freedom. He also gets his face on the front page now. My point here, though, is not that to vaunt his success, but to underline that he became successful following his ideals. He was frustrated at the limitations, both in terms of advancement and content in the traditional newspaper medium and so he went to the web and wrote what he wanted (those early days on his old site must have been a real blast to follow, except that I'm not much of a Boston sports fan*). On, he refused to pull punches and has come out extremely critical against some very powerful people and institutions. I'm sure there were some interesting conversations in the offices there during certain occassions (though we must give credit to espn for being so flexible and taking some risks, especially considering its size and power today).

He embraced technological change: I already mentioned how he jumped onto the web early, but the other arena that he has fully taken advantage of (and given me hours and hours of entertainment) is podcasting. His podcasts are generally relaxed, casual conversations with a few regular friends (Joe House with his gentle voice being my favorite), colleagues and sports pundits. They are the kinds of discussions you would either be having with your own friends or the ones you wished you could have with some of the great thinkers of sports. He isn't limited to just sports as he gets into reality shows and popular culture (including great back and forths with Chuck Klosterman). He has also gotten quite deep, including an awesome conversation about Obama with JA Adande (you have to scroll down to the 1/21 episode; it really is worth listening to, especially if you want to renew your enthusiasm and optimism now that we are on the verge of invading Yemen) and another one about The Wire (best TV show ever and constantly vaunted by Simmons) with Jason Whitlock that even my wife deigned to listen to.

Simmons recognized the potential of the podcast early on and he pushed hard for it. It took espn a while to appreciate the power of this new distribution form, but they are finally starting to get into it. A couple of podcasts ago, Bill Simmons said that once we get the internet regularily into cars and people can choose podcasts the way they choose radio stations, the medium will exploded and I suspect he is right). (Another podcast visionary, whom I also learned about from Bill Simmons, is Adam Carolla - definitely check his show out.)

He is highly critical: This trait is the one that seals the deal for me. I love following professional sports, especially the NBA but it is a love/hate relationship. I started following the league just as it really started to take off with cable television and Michael Jordan. Unfortunately, there is a constant struggle between the NBA that is the game and the NBA that is the marketing machine and for a while the latter was really winning out (to the point where refs, announcers and the league itself through scheduling and promotion would all work to ensure that a more marketable team or the team with the most marketable player would be more succesful). Simmons was one of the earlier and louder voices on the national stage who really started screaming bullshit at a lot of the stuff that went down. And as he has a legitimacy among the fans, the league and the machine surrounding it (including all the various media outlets) had to listen. I don't know if they've done much about it, but at least they listened and at least someone is screaming. In these times of capitalist supremacy where it's almost considered morally wrong to criticize a corporation or administration, I am grateful for the few voices who still are willing to take a stand. That Simmons has managed to do this and be wildly successful at the same time gives me some small hope for the world. At the very least, I'll get to read some honest and critical writing on a regular basis.

Re-reading the above arguments, I realize that I am ignoring the significance of the context Simmons is working in (the rise of the internet) and many other individuals who have contributed in their own way to these developments (AM sports radio in general, for instance, which has always been much more critical-minded than television or the print media and which had a big influence on Simmons). I am not a hardcore sports nerd, so I tend to read only the most popular writers. I'm sure there are a lot of people out there who would possibly argue that I am exaggerating Simmons influence and they may well be right. I'm absolutely sure that I have excluded a ton of influential figures, but I am not reviewing a book by any of them.

All these big-issue arguments aside, the main reason I am a big fan of Simmons is that his writing is entertaining, often laugh-out-loud funny but built on a foundation of solid research, well-constructed arguments and interesting ideas. He's writing about sports in an intelligent way but doesn't take himself too seriously.

So onto the book itself. It's huge and is basically a giant look at the entire league from the beginning to last year. He starts out with an intro explaining how he got into basketball and why he wanted to write the book. Then he writes a great broad history of the league (extremely informative). The bulk of the book is him ranking the top 64 players of all time. Simmons loves theoretical arguments (such as "what if player x from the '60s and player y from the '90s played on the same team?") and this section is one giant exploration of how all these players who played in such different eras stack up. The next section is ranking the best teams of all time and then he concludes with his Wine Cellar team, the players he would put together if martians came down and challenged us to a basketball game for the fate of planet earth (seriously; he has a tiny nerd streak that adds to my appreciation). There is a final chapter where goes and meets with Bill Walton which is very moving. I got teary-eyed.

I learned a lot from this book. He has a strong thesis and that is "The Secret", the idea that playing as a team trumps individual athletic prowess and leads to victory. This seems like a truism, but it is a constant struggle in professional sports and many great players have not been able to learn The Secret. I was also shocked (again) by the racism players in the '50s and '60s encountered and how some rose above it and others were taken down by it. Overall, though, The Book of Basketball is kind of like a giant, massive collection of Simmons' online columns, really well-organized and structured with a singular focus. It's not a transcendent work, but terrifically entertaining and highly informative. It's a book about the NBA. If you're not interested in the league or basketball, then I don't suggest you read this. If you are, I strongly recommend it.

(and here's a better review of the book from Slate's Josh Levin, though I disagree that the jokes got repetitive.)