Archive for the 'CBR4' Category

30
Dec
12

CBR4 #47: Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter by Seth Grahame-Smith

I’m not sure why it surprised me to find out that the guy who is responsible for Pride & Prejudice & Zombies is a graduate of my alma mater. To be honest, it actually makes perfect sense–that kind of weirdness is one of Emerson’s keystones. In Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, the author once again turns preconcieved notions on their ears.

This story is about a side of our sixteenth president that is rarely spoken of: his lifelong quest to hunt and destroy vampires. Beginning as a child when a vampire killed his beloved mother, young Abraham trains for what he sees as his life’s purpose: to be a hunter of the undead. He joins up with a moral vampire, who helps him reach his potential and seek out the most ruthless bloodsuckers to slay. He also begins his political career, starting his rise toward the highest office in the land.

In AL:VH, Grahame-Smith takes on a more difficult task. Instead of inserting new things into a pre-existing work, he’s written something entirely new. However, it’s clear that he’s also done some extensive research into the life of Abraham Lincoln. Excluding the vampirey bits, the context surrounding the story is all correct, as far as I know.

It’s an interesting lens through which to view a man who was in real life a hero. The story is well-written, and the character of Lincoln is extremely empathetic.

I haven’t had a chance to see the movie of this yet, though I suspect I’ll probably be disappointed. (I much prefer seeing a movie first, and then discovering the book–it tends to improve on a good experience, rather than make an initially good experience a let-down.)

Last but not least, if what I’ve read of him and his sense of humor is true, I think Abraham Lincoln probably would have found this book just as entertaining as I did.

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30
Dec
12

CBR4 #46: The Hotel New Hampshire by John Irving

There are some books that I read and by the time I’m finished with the final page, the tale is already slipping out of my head. I intellectually know I read it, and if prompted I could probably give a reasonable summary of the action, but that’s about as far as it goes. Then there are other books that stick with me. Books that I find myself thinking about days, weeks, months, or even years later. Books whose characters become like old friends, about whom I find myself thinking at the oddest times.

The Hotel New Hampshire falls into the latter category.

It’s the story of the Berry family, a group of odd ducks led by patriarch Win. Win is a dreamer, who leads his family on an epic journey from rural New Hampshire, to Vienna, to New York City, and back again. The family consists of Win, his wife, his father Iowa Bob (football coach and weight-lifting enthusiast), eldest son Frank (lover of uniforms), spitfire Franny, narrator John (who is in love with his sister), gentle soul Lily, oddball Egg, and flatulent dog Sorrow. They have experiences both comic and tragic, meet a cast of bizarre, fantastical characters, and grow together as a family.

This is the kind of story that makes me wish it were a million pages long so I could know everything that ever happened to the Berrys. Even after I finished it, I found myself thinking of them, imagining the things that occurred outside the edges of the novel. The writing was wonderful, and I loved Irving’s turn of phrase. John’s narrative voice is distinct and likable, even if some of the things he does are disturbing at best.

I managed to find a copy of the 1984 film starring Rob Lowe as John and Jodie Foster as Franny. While it was fairly faithful to the source material, the tone seemed wrong, somehow. It seemed like the director couldn’t decide if it was a broad comedy or a drama or a fairy tale or a mix of genres. I think it would be a great project for Wes Anderson to take on, actually. The Berrys are like a New England version of the Tenenbaums, and Anderson is a master of mixing tones and genres. While it’s maybe a little different than his usual work, I think he could really pull it off. Besides, it’d be nice for him to stretch himself a bit–his latest, Moonrise Kingdom, was disappointing to me in that it felt extremely repetitive and altogether too reminiscent of his earlier works.

On the whole, I’d highly recommend this, though I suspect it may not appeal to everyone–it requires a certain whimsical world view, and an acceptance of some of the wilder aspects of the story.

13
Dec
12

CBR4 #45: The Good Soldiers by David Finkel

I really should stop reading these books about troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. They only seem to make me feel angry, upset, and hopeless about the situation there.

David Finkel spent the majority of 2007 and part of 2008 following a battalion of Army Rangers as they participated in the “surge” in Iraq. It focuses mostly on their commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Kauzlarich (by the end referred to by his troops as “Lost Kauz”) and his struggles to try and be successful at a task that seems doomed to fail. They are tasked with improving the situation in Baghdad by patrolling, setting up outposts, and making inroads with the local people. Instead, they spend most of their time avoiding IEDs, being shelled, and trying to navigate the bureaucratic nightmare that accompanies trying to accomplish anything.

Meanwhile, soldiers–ones we have been introduced to and have followed for pages or even chapters–die. Or are horribly maimed. Or are psychologically broken. Their friends, fellow soldiers, and commanding officers have to not only deal with that, but also have to handle the fact that tomorrow, it could just as easily be one of them zipped into a body bag or evacuated on a  helicopter.

Life isn’t much easier for those who get to go home. Many of them must cope with debilitating physical and mental injuries. Their families must try to adjust to these unfamiliar men who have returned wearing the shape of their husbands, fathers, or sons. A section that details a visit to a Texas rehab hospital is completely gut-wrenching.

The worst part of this book is that in the end, nothing has really changed. The unit’s fifteen month mission has basically been a  failure, in that they have not really improved anything. It’s still impossible to know who is on the Americans’ side and who is going to try to kill them at the first opportunity. The Iraqis still live in a state of constant fear and danger, and the the US has done nothing but lose good soldiers for no reason at all.

It’s a well-written, well-researched book, but it’s also extremely depressing and disheartening. It’s absolutely worth reading, but it’s not something you’ll necessarily feel good about once you’ve finished it.

11
Dec
12

CBR4 #42: Dreamcatcher by Stephen King

Oh, Stephen King. I love your work so much, but there are times when I wonder if you’re worth it.

Dreamcatcher is not an utterly terrible book. It is not nearly as painfully dull as The Tommyknockers, but it is not good either. While it has its moments, there is also a lot of unnecessarily gross gore, and the plot is…not good.

The book is the story of four friends–Henry, Pete, Jonesy, and Beaver–who come together once a year at a remote hunting cabin to spend time together and celebrate their childhood friendship. Although they’ve grown apart, they are also bonded by more than just the times they spent together as kids–they have a fifth friend, Duddits, who is very, very special. Although Duddits appears to be just a man with Down’s syndrome, he is actually a LOT more. While the group are spending time out in the woods, a man wanders into their camp, displaying some very odd symptoms. Pretty soon, the four find themselves involved in a situation that could have effects the world over…a situation that their friendship with Duddits may somehow have prepared them for.

Sounds pretty reasonable, doesn’t it? Well, start throwing in alien fuzz, and ass weasels, and an entity called Mr. Grey, and things start going off the rails. Then add a batshit crazy army colonel bent on hiding the truth at any cost. It starts to spiral out of control pretty quickly.

The characters are pretty likable, which is what saves the book from being irredeemable. Jonesy’s lonely battle against Mr. Grey is one of the strongest parts of the tale, and I also enjoyed the brief glimpses of their childhood times together. Each of the friends is well-defined, and I had no trouble identifying with them or rooting for them. Some of the secondary characters are less effective, though I liked what little we saw of Duddits’s mother.

The movie is not great either, though the performances are about as good as possible. Thomas Jane, Jason Lee, Timothy Olyphant (Olyphantastic!), and Damien Lewis star as the four friends, and Lewis’s creepy turn as Jonesy is pretty cool. Morgan Freeman and his eyebrows chew every available piece of scenery as he romps and stomps in the role of the crazy colonel, while Tom Sizemore plays it cool as the colonel’s assistant. There’s also an interesting performance from Donnie Wahlberg (or as I like to call him “The-more-talented-but-not-as-attractive-Wahlberg”) as adult Duddits. However, ass weasels are something that never needed to make it to film, and the plot is a bit too jumbled to really translate well. Much like the book, the movie is not exactly terrible, but I wouldn’t necessarily call it good either.

11
Dec
12

CBR4 #41: Sandman Slim by Richard Kadrey

Eleven years ago, James Stark’s friends cast him into hell. Unfortunately for them, he’s escaped. Now he’s roaming the streets of Los Angeles–armed with supernatural weapons, hellion spells, and the skills picked up from spending more than a decade doing battle in hell’s arena with the worst the underworld had to offer–looking for revenge on the people who cast him down and in particular the ones who killed the woman he loved.

With the help of an immortal alchemist, a literal talking head, a mysterious man who sells very mysterious things, an angry angel, an underground doctor, and a video store clerk, Stark discovers that he’s not the only one with an axe to grind…and that the fate of the entire world may just hang in the balance with only him to save it.

I like this book a lot. It reads like a Jason Statham movie–blood, guts, action, magic, fights, and funny one-liners. I enjoyed all the characters, though some were not fleshed out as well as I’d like, since the focus was mostly on Stark and the story was told from his perspective. I was right with him, though, trying to figure out what was going on and predict his enemies’ next moves, as well as figure out whether his friends could be trusted. Obviously, this is not high literature, but it was tremendously entertaining.

This is the first book in a series, and I can’t WAIT to get my hands on the next one.

26
Oct
12

CBR4 #39: Night of the Living Trekkies by Kevin David Anderson

I have recently had to admit to myself that I have become a Trekkie. Mind you, this DOES NOT mean that I am going to put on some go-go boots, pick up a phaser, and go stand in line to catch a glimpse of Leonard Nimoy. But when you live with a person who has to have Star Trek playing in order to go to sleep at night, you pick things up, whether you want to or not. Now, I don’t know much about the original series, since The Boyfriend does not understand camp and thus does not enjoy the original. I have, however, seen pretty much every episode of Next Generation, Deep Space Nine (ugh), and Voyager at LEAST once, probably multiple times. I’m not aware of every piece of trivia, but should the conversation turn to Klingon battle philosophy or the plight of the oppressed Bajorans, I can hold my own. I have even been known to say things (out in public, no less–how embarrassing) like “We are not the Borg! Just because one of us knows something doesn’t mean we ALL know it!” It is this shameful side of my personality that made this book so much fun.

Night of the Living Trekkies takes place at a Star Trek convention in Houston. Army veteran Jim Pike works at the hotel where the convention is taking place. He lives a life of trying to avoid responsibility, since his time in Afghanistan has led him to loathe being responsible for anyone but himself. However, things begin to get weird at the convention–and not in the normal kind of way. Jim finds himself leading a small group of survivors through what seems to be a zombie apocalypse. He has to figure out a way to keep his team–including his younger sister, a red-shirt, a Klingon weapons maker, and Princess Leia–alive long enough to escape from Houston. Along the way, they also may discover the source of the epidemic.

This book is hilarious for those who enjoy both zombie stories and Star Trek. The winks and nudges are all there, but the story is good as well. Sometimes in parody stories the author will expend more effort with the jokes than on  the plot or the characters–that’s not the case in this book. I thought that the characters were all distinct and sympathetic, and that the plot moved along in a reasonable way.

If you don’t have a basic working knowledge of Star Trek, this book is not for you. If you don’t find the idea of a zombified, costumed marching band called “The Seventy-Six Trom-borgs” funny, this book is probably not for you. If you are looking for a major departure from the traditional zombie story genre, this book is not for you. But if you think that you could get behind some good old-fashioned bat’leth battles and zombie fleeing, you might get a kick out of this one.

26
Oct
12

CBR4 #38: Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto by Chuck Klosterman

I suspect that Chuck Klosterman (much like fellow Chuck, Palahniuk) is one of those authors that you either love or hate. Either you love him–because the thoughts that he’s writing down mesh perfectly with the things that you have already been thinking, and the conversations he’s having are things that you either already discuss or wish you could, and the connections he’s making are connections you’ve either already made or at least understand completely–or you hate him–you find him a whiny first-world hipster who wastes entirely too much time thinking about 90s sitcoms, soft rock, and Axl Rose.

I fall into the first category.

People have been recommending Klosterman to me off and on for years, but somehow I never got around to reading him before. (Sometimes, when a whole bunch of people recommend a book and tell me “Oh, this is SO YOU!” I find that reading the book turns out to be a disappointing experience which just makes me think my friends don’t know me very well.) It turns out that he’s exactly what I’ve been looking for in the “non-fiction essay” genre. I mean, I like David Foster Wallace, but he can frankly be a bit heavy for me. Klosterman, on the other hand, is definitely fluff…but well-written, INTERESTING fluff.

The essays in this book run the gamut through pop culture. My particular favorites included his take on how a comparison between Marilyn Monroe and Pamela Anderson is not only apt, but a reflection of the way society has changed since the 1950s, how you are either a Celtics person or a Lakers person and why this influences your world view, and the one documenting his travels with a Guns n’ Roses cover band. I found the writing to be both funny and intelligent, and his wide grasp of both pop-culture and general culture remarkable.

To sum up, Chuck Klosterman is like the friend I’ve always wanted but never had–a sharp, witty misanthrope willing to spend hours eating cereal and discussing the cultural ramifications of Saved By the Bell. As a person who once wrote a paper comparing Hester Prynne and Rizzo from Grease, I can relate totally. If that doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, best to just move on to something else.