Wednesday, May 28, 2008

City of Thieves

City of Thieves by David BenioffMost books have lulls within their pages - brief sections, little dips and valleys, that may not be as strong as the rest, or for whatever reason, fail to keep the reader's attention from faltering. Even the greatest novels seem to sometimes have these lapses, and maybe it's all within the reader whether the book can hold their attention for the duration - as a reader, I don't really know. I do know this: not once during David Benioff's City of Thieves did my attention slip from its pages.

City of Thieves is a story about two Russian men - a man and a boy, actually - who, during the 1942 Siege of Leningrad, are thrown in prison one evening - for relatively innocuous "crimes" - to stew over their respective fates. Assuming that they are facing certain execution in the morning, they are shocked when they are inexplicably brought before the commanding colonel of Leningrad, who tells them that he will set them free - washing them completely of their anti-government transgressions - if they can bring to him one dozen eggs for his daughter's wedding cake. An absurd task, to be sure, in the face of the horrors of war - Leningrad is surrounded by Nazi forces and bombarded every night, most people have not eaten a real meal in over 6 months, not to mention that there is no way that the city still has items as luxurious as chicken eggs - but this colonel, who holds their fate in his hands, is only concerned with the cake for his well-fed daughter, thus the only choice for Lev and Kolya is to complete their task.

"The days had become a confusion of catastrophes; what seemed impossible in the afternoon was blunt fact by the evening. German corpses fell from the sky; cannibals sold sausage links made from ground human in the Haymarket; apartment blocs collapsed to the ground; dogs became bombs; frozen soldiers became signposts; a partisan with half a face stood swaying in the snow, staring sad-eyed at his killers. I had no food in my belly, no fat on my bones, and no energy to reflect on this parade of atrocities. I just kept moving, hoping to find another half slice of bread for myself and a dozen eggs for the colonel's daughter."


I think that what struck me the most about this story was the fact that Benioff was able to construct a very real, visceral storyline around a completely ridiculous centerpiece - the search for these eggs. This is a story about the folly, the absurdity, of war, yet at the same time, it is about the horrors of war and the atrocities of men, as well. There is great humor in the interplay between Lev and Kolya - they recognize the nature of their task for what it is: a search for eggs - but they realize that failure either means death by Nazi bullet, or, worse yet, at the hands of their own. Once out beyond the city walls, they realize that they are very much alone and the only thing keeping them alive is the certainty that they must complete their task.

The writing is very crisp - the fog from the breath of the characters steams off the page - and the dialogue flows from Benioff's pen as though he were transcribing conversations from 60 years ago verbatim. I tend to steer clear of World War II novels - and it was the strength of Benioff's previous book, "When the Nines Roll Over" that forced my hand - but this is more than just simple genre fiction. It is a story of human beings, the way our lives intersect, and how we affect each other in ways no one can predict. It's brilliant.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Indiana Jones is Dead

Let me preface this post with a little background information about myself. I was 6 years old when Raiders of the Lost Ark came out in 1981. My parents went to see it with some friends one evening and when they came back, my father came and sat on my bed and told me all about it. He was a pretty good storyteller, so I can still remember trying to picture the cool, collected Indiana Jones, whip in hand, searching for adventure in the Amazon rain forest with "two scuzzy-looking guys", as my dad described them. Before I fell asleep, he filled my head with the opening scenes: the golden idol, the poison darts, the giant rolling rock - I was butter in Indy's hands before I ever laid eyes on the film itself. When Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom arrived in 1984, I went to see it with my dad, and although I think he could see the faults in it (Kate Capshaw, for one), he knew that my 9 year-old eyes only saw another Indiana Jones adventure and I think that's how he came to see it as well. As awful as that film was, it still had that Indy feel to it - throw caution to the wind and just enjoy the ridiculous adventure. Over time, I saw Part 2 as just a blip - a slight error in the trilogy - easily overlooked when taking all three films as a whole.

1989 brought Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. I was now 14 and per tradition, I went to see it with my dad - Indiana Jones films were the only ones we ever saw in the theater together. It was exactly what we had hoped for - no Kate Capshaw, lots of adventure, lots of evil Germans, Sallah and Marcus were in it, everyone rides off into the sunset to live another day. In hindsight, this should have been it for the series - what else needed to be done? I have always been able to imagine other adventures Indiana may have had in later years, but never in the most absurd of those imaginings did I think I would ever see Indiana Jones watching a flying saucer take off out of a Peruvian hillside.

In the intervening 19 years between the third film and this latest, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, director Steven Spielberg, producer George Lucas, and Harrison Ford supposedly decided that they would only make a fourth film if everything were perfect - all three had to agree, completely, on the script, otherwise it would not be worth making. Interesting back story, considering the abomination they came up with. To be fair, I obviously had my hopes set fairly high for this - I was convinced that there was absolutely no way it would be possible for them to make a movie that was worse than Temple of Doom. And for a substantial part of this fourth film, it is better than that, I'll give it that much. Harrison Ford is great, of course, but this was never an issue. Even in Doom, he shone - he's Indiana Jones, Han Solo, a Bladerunner - there's no way he could not do this right. It's the rest of the cast, the script & dialogue, and the driving plot that just flat out suck.

I'll lay out the general plot for you, since I'm not worried about giving anything away - it's better to be prepared going in than to be as stupefied as I was. We meet Indiana and his new friend, Mac, in 1957 as they are brought to Area 51 in the Nevada desert by a group of Soviets. The Russians are looking for a particular item in a wooden crate hidden inside a massive warehouse - apparently, Jones has some knowledge about the item and the Russians want him to find it. Cate Blanchett - a fabulous actress in her own right - is horribly miscast in the role of the Russian leader and psychic-in-residence, Irina Spalko. Her accent falters constantly, her bob-haircut is ridiculous, and, more importantly, she fails to exude the evil that is required of Indy villains. Right away this smelled like trouble. Indy is betrayed by Mac, an exciting action/escape sequence takes place inside the warehouse - yes, the same warehouse from the end of Raiders - and the opening ends with Jones surviving a nuclear blast by hiding in a 1950's lead-lined refrigerator. Oh yeah, by the way, the contents of the mysterious crate was a dead alien.

Back at his teaching position, Jones is promptly fired due to the FBI's interest in his Russian connections. School dean Marcus Brody has died between films (Denholm Elliott died in 1992) and his replacement (played by Jim Broadbent) lacks that spark, that indefinable friendship element that existed between Jones and Marcus, so that you just don't care about him at all. And he calls Jones "Henry" - clearly not a friend. (Or is it that Jones has grown out of the "Indiana" moniker in the last 20 years? A sad prospect, to be sure.) Jones then meets the aptly named Mutt Williams, played by the vacant, waste of space Shia LaBeouf, who asks for his help in rescuing an old professor friend. The friend has been kidnapped in a foreign country and has sent along a coded message that only Jones can decipher - thus sending Indiana on an adventure that will begin with his rescuing his friend, but will ultimately open his eyes to something much larger. So, exactly the same general plot as The Last Crusade. At least until the wheels fall off in the second act.

Indiana ends up in Peru, searching for the gravesite of a conquistador - sufficiently Jones-like - but when he discovers a magnetic, blue-crystal alien skull hidden with the conquistador's remains, I became adrift in my own sadness. The skull has magic powers and the one who returns it to its proper place - apparently a headless alien skeleton in El Dorado, the mythical City of Gold in Central America - will be the recipient of those powers. I thought that the El Dorado plot was one which could have been expanded upon to create a fantastic Indiana Jones-as-archaeologist plot, but alas, the stage was set for an alien invasion. My hopes turned to Karen Allen's return as Marion Ravenwood, but the spark there was gone as well. The chemistry between Indiana and Marion is noticeably absent, no matter how Ford tries to make it appear so, and Allen appears stilted and wooden in her return to the screen. Shia LaBeouf offers absolutely nothing to the plot development - except a really stupid scene with his monkey army (clearly Lucas's idea) - and the Russian villains are hapless, insufferable, and without a scrap of malice or evil. Indiana is again betrayed by Mac in later scenes, but one has to wonder why he is surprised - Indiana Jones would never have trusted this guy! Who the hell is he? We have no context for him, so of course no one in the audience trusted him to begin with. It's not as if Sallah suddenly betrayed Indiana's trust - that we can empathize with - but this guy? Let the aliens have him.

Ah, the aliens. All other problems aside, this was the real crux issue for me. Of all the historically interesting archaeological myths in the world, none were interesting enough to make into a film, so they went instead with an overblown X-Files episode instead? Indiana Jones doesn't need flying saucers and crystal alien skeletons to be exciting - all he needs is a lost artifact in some jungle temple and a whip. It just seemed so out of context for the character - a character that we are infinitely familiar with - that, yes, it came off as completely implausible. I know, the Ark of the Covenant and the Holy Grail don't seem plausible either, but here's the difference: Indiana was initially just out for the treasure in those earlier films, but gradually came to recognize the intrinsic value of what he was searching for. In this, it seems that once Jones gets to Peru, he is just rolling along with the plot, never once wondering what it is he is seeking. He carries the crystal skull around like the plastic prop that it is, never being asked to believe in anything and as a result, I didn't believe it either.


Everything wraps up "nicely" by the end - the bad guys are vanquished, although in incredibly lame fashion: the thirteen crystal alien skeletons come to life and literally blow Cate Blanchett's mind - and Indiana - well, Henry - Jones settles down to a more professorial life with his lady on his arm. But the mystique of "Indiana Jones" is gone from this ending - no room is left for imagining his further adventures like I used to do. It's sad, really, seeing Jones smile, wave, and go off to become "Dr. Henry Jones, Associate Dean" - there's an unnecessary finality to it. And it's not that every previous scene in the film is awful, let me be clear - Ford is again excellent as Indiana, delivering most of his lines with gusto and humor. ("Put your hands down, you're embarrassing me.") It's just that there's a certain vacuousness to the story and the characters - even Jones, who'd be nothing without Ford - that make it feel bloated and glossy. Gone is that feeling of 1930's film serials that supposedly was the impetus to this franchise in the first place. The fun has been sucked out of it completely and all we are left with is the hollow shell that used to be Indiana Jones. My dad would have hated it.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Hey Buddy, Whatcha Readin' Now?

It's really hard to keep up with writing a blog while living everyday life, so there are stretches where I am absent from The Catapult while off reading somewhere. And while I am absent, I know that there are those of you out there who actually look to this site for book reviews or suggestions on what's good to read in the book world. So, I've lumped together the books I've read since my last posted reviews (which were Ken Bruen's Cross, reviewed here and Nam Le's The Boat, reviewed on Culture Lust) and gave my thoughts on each - whether good or bad. Also, please note that most of these have yet to published so you may have to wait a bit to read them.

A Voyage Long and Strange by Tony Horwitz
Horwitz writes with a slightly more-acerbic-than-Bill-Bryson casual wit that I find very appealing. His earlier book, Blue Latitudes, chronicled his somewhat drunken sail around the world following the wake of Captain Cook and was interspersed with enough historical insights go well beyond typical armchair travel. The premise of this new book stems from Horowitz's discovery, in mid-life, that he knew virtually nothing of the century or more between 1492 and the first Thanksgiving in 1620. Embarrassed by this fact, since he had been a history major in college, he set out across the land on a modern journey of discovery, tracking the routes of the conquistadors. Like most of us who are big enough to admit it, he didn’t know anything going in, so his writing is very funny, reflects that he has nothing to lose by learning, and is filled with information that you’ve never admitted that you didn’t know. (available now)

Alive In Necropolis by Doug Dorst
This was a book that I had great hopes for - the reasoning behind which is now quite lost on me. The plot sounds intriguing enough: a rookie cop in Colma, CA (the city where all the dead of San Francisco are buried) struggles with his sanity in a town where the dead outnumber the living 10:1. The jacket copy lured me with, "...all the playful sensitivity of Haruki Murakami and the haunted atmosphere of Paul Auster...". If only Doug Dorst could write half as well as either of those men, then this would have been even slightly compelling. Apparently, the rookie cop, Mercer, is able to see the dead - that's right, see them walking around, causing mischief - and takes it upon himself to fight their crimes on the side. Interesting enough, except for the way these scenes are crafted together - every time Mercer engages in some late night brawl with a ghost, we hear about it secondhand in the form of a police report. If this is a supernatural cop novel, then take the training wheels off and let it fly! Dorst spends too much time trying to playfully figure out if Mercer is crazy or not, but he's just not a skilled enough writer, so by the time it's sorted out, no one cares anymore and we all want the book to be over. (on sale in July 2008)


The 351 Books of Irma Arcuri by David Bajo
Just a really unusual, dreamy, erudite book that was truly able to transport me elsewhere, out of the real world while I read it. I do hate to be cliche, but it's sort of a smarter, sexier version of Shadow of the Wind, I guess, with a more ethereal beauty to it than that. The gist: mathemetician Philip has carried on a love affair with Irma - a book restorer by trade, to be simple - for most of his life. Even through his two marriages, she has always been a part of his life, whether physically present or not, and she has managed to leave a relatively positive impression on everyone in Philip's life. When Irma mysteriously disappears one day, she leaves Philip all 351 books in her library and he uses his own mathematical formula for selecting the order in which to read them, to better understand where Irma may have gone. He soon finds that she has left him messages imbedded in the books - most notably a specially bound version of Don Quixote - that lead him along a certain path, either to finding her or not - this being left up to Philip. Like I said, it has a great ethereal quality to it - almost like having a novel-length dream - that just lets you drift off amongst it's pages. It has a certain mystery element to it, but, like it does with Philip, this becomes secondary to learning more about who Irma and Philip are, both together and apart. A magnificent book - and a debut novel as well. (on sale June 2008)


The Ivory Grin by Ross MacDonald
I won't really review this, I just felt that I needed to acknowledge that I had read it. MacDonald wrote 18 crime novels from the 1940's to the 70's, featuring private detective Lew Archer and I have always been intrigued by them. I just picked this one up at random - most have been recently reissued by Vintage Black Lizard and look pretty fab - and I thoroughly enjoyed the pulpy escape to the land of dames, booze, and cigarettes. Great if you've read Chandler, Hammett, and their ilk and are looking to revisit that style.




Swan Peak by James Lee Burke
The seventeenth Dave Robicheaux novel. If you've read this blog before, you know that Burke is one of my favorites and that I usually drop whatever I'm currently reading to devour these books as soon as they arrive. I have even somehow convinced my Simon & Schuster rep that I am worthy of receiving the raw manuscript to read - this is printed a few months before even the bound galleys are available. This book sends Dave and Clete back to the mountains of Montana - the site of Burke's third Robicheaux novel, the Edgar Award-winning Black Cherry Blues - to inadvertently deal with some of the unfinished business from 20 years ago. Not as strong as the Katrina novel he wrote last year (The Tin Roof Blowdown), but still a great chapter in Dave's life. I think that since Dave has aged through these books, gone through severe personal crises, and that we have seen important, vital characters come and go, there is always that fear built in to these stories that someone won't make it home from the violent confrontation that is inevitable. Burke somehow manages to keep even the seasoned fan guessing and concerned for the characters' fates. That's hard to do. (on sale July 2008)

The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson
This one got a lot of hype from our Random House rep - who's usually a very reliable source for quality lit - as well as from the rest of the publishing house. There was a heated bidding war for this and Doubleday ended up paying $1.25 million for just the US rights - a lot of money, especially for a debut novel. Sorry to say it wasn't really worth the effort, the time, or the cash. It's good, but certainly not worth all the hype, at least to me. The deal: while recovering in the burn ward after being horribly burned in a car wreck, our nameless narrator is visited by the mysterious Marianne Engel, a Stevie Nicks-like crazy woman who claims to have known him for 700 years. But Marianne essentially keeps his soul alive by telling him tales of their lives together in centuries past, which has the effect of teaching him how to love another human being. I actually liked the sections that filled in the past lives - they were mysterious, engaging, and well written - but I was lost in much of the modern sections, especially once Marianne's character began to show her weirdness and the narrator seemed to be on board with it. Maybe it just wasn't my bag, I don't know. (on sale August 2008)

Once Were Cops by Ken Bruen
It seems that every time Bruen is screwed out of winning that Edgar Award (he was recently nominated for Priest), he turns around and produces another gem that proves he is worthy of substantial accolades. This stand alone novel is fast, furious, dark, and unabashedly hilarious - standard fare from Bruen and the reasons I keep coming back. A fullblown sociopath & murderer, Galway cop Shea somehow manages to finagle a transfer to New York City - a better setting to ply his sadistic trade. He teams up with an NYC hardass cop named Kebar and the two try to clean up the town with Bronson-like menace. Excepting the fact that Shea is certifiably insane and filled with unrelenting murderous tendencies - which may hamper his policing abilities, in the strictest sense. Prepare to be blindsided - although you know that Shea will eventually do something really, really crazy, there's no way that you're prepared for his level of sadism - or his intelligence and ability to climb the corporate ladder. (on sale in September 2008)

Knockemstiff by Donald Ray Pollack
No one of any value or morality lives in the fictional town of Knockemstiff, Ohio. This is the lesson I learned from these interconnected short pieces - sort of a redneck, inbred, hillbilly version of Winesburg, Ohio. It seems fitting, after reading these, that Chuck Palahniuk has a blurb on the cover, as these resonate as no more than childish vignettes about stupid people who revel in doing disgusting things. Like Chuck, they are well crafted and well written, but the subjects are so deplorable, so...gross, that it just feels juvenile after awhile. There's only so much incest and bad decisions one reader can take. (available now)

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

O-Dear!

Yeah, yeah, I know this is supposed to be a blog about books, but it's baseball season, man, and my Birds are doing better than even I had hoped. Here is their response to the "Manny-being-Manny"/"Yay! High-five!" catch by Manny Ramirez in today's 6-3 victory over the Sox: How to win a baseball game.
Please note: this one is posted especially for Catapult fans, Robin and Rebecca. In your faces.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

The Arrival

Wednesday, May 7, 2008 at 11:30 am - apx. 35 1/2 hours late. The sight of which can make 1000 12-year old girls weep with excitement.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Robust Growth

Just a piece of information I found in today's Publishers Weekly Daily that is absolutely in no way related to the post directly previous to this one. Not at all.

Hachette USA Has Good Start
-- Publishers Weekly, 5/7/2008

First quarter revenue at Hachette Livre rose 0.5%, to 413.3 million euros ($636 million), with results hurt by the weak dollar. Excluding currency fluctuations, sales were ahead 2.4%. Hachette parent company Lagardere said Hachette Book Group USA had another strong quarter, led by sales of James Patterson’s Maximum Ride series as well as sales of Stephenie Meyer titles. In the U.K., there was “robust growth” in adult and children’s fiction, although sales were down in France. Lagardere said the outlook for the entire publishing division in 2008 is “good.”

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

My Little, Brown Mess

I debated keeping my mouth shut on this one, since it is work related, but it was so ridiculous and so infuriating, that I wanted people to read about it. It's really just a rant and this may not be interesting for anyone else, but that's what the ol' interweb is for, isn't it? And just for the record, none of this is official company rhetoric - it's all from my humble observations.

At the bookstore where I am gainfully employed - let's call it "W" - we are hosting a book signing event later this month with the Young Adult novelist, Stephenie Meyer. For the uninitiated, Meyer is like the second coming of J.K. Rowling, only for teens & tweens. She has written several very successful books about teen vampires and other things I can't relate to and has just now published her first adult novel, called "The Host". It is for this book that W is hosting her, no pun intended. When we were notified by the publisher - let's call them "Publisher X" - that we would be able to host an event with Ms. Meyer, we were informed that we could only do so if we were able to provide a venue large enough to hold 1000 people - a taller order than one might think - and that we would be required to purchase 1000 copies of "The Host" to sell to the attendees. It wasn't so much that we needed 1000 books - we'd be happy to sell that many, any day of the week - it was the "required" part that rankled me. And, although this was a requirement, if we were unable to sell all 1000 books, Publisher X would not pay the freight costs of shipping the remainder back to their warehouse. (An unusual requirement for a book signing.) So, if the book bombed like "The Lovely Bones II", we were screwed. Admittedly, the chances of this thing tanking were pretty much slim to none, it was just the attitude of requiring our compliance that just stank. But, this is why I am not in charge, I suppose.

Time marched ever onward - Ms. Meyer announced her very limited-engagement book tour via her website and the phones started ringing off the hook at the W. This was great, as we appeared to be rapidly headed towards capacity for the event. We sold the book in advance as a ticket - the book wouldn't be available until May 6, after which, we told customers that they could pick up their books and tickets at the store. Everyone was happy. May 5th rolled around. Typically, when a major book release is impending, the publisher will ship orders out in advance, so that bookstores have the book to sell on the actual date that it is released to the public. Prior to scheduling our event with Ms. Meyer, W ordered 40 copies of "The Host", just for the store's general stock. These 40 arrived on May 5. The 1000 did not. Okay, not the end of the world. We just assumed that they would arrive on the morning of the 6th and that the initial 40 would get us through the morning until the others arrived. I mean, we had to buy them, right? There's no way they wouldn't get here on time, that's ridiculous.

May 6. No books in the morning deliveries. Our stock of 40 held out for a few hours, but dwindled to 15 or so as people came to get their tickets. Imagine that. I was sent on the first of two Costco runs to get as many more as I could from the unsuspecting wholesaler. I ended up cleaning them out of the 40 they had. Our required 1000 still hadn't shown up by 2:00. And here's where I started to get really pissed off. When a representative from W contacted our sales rep for Publisher X to ask where our books were, the answer was somewhat less than satisfactory. The rep claimed 1) to have no way of tracking the shipment, 2) that the person responsible for said tracking was out of the office until tomorrow morning, and 3) that the rep was leaving town tomorrow at 5:30am and couldn't really do anything about this. But instead, let's 4) talk about the affidavit W needs to sign regarding the release of another book we are having an event for in June. Say what? Wait, on second thought, yeah, let's sign that affidavit saying we won't sell the book before it's release date since there's clearly no way that that's even possible with all of your books existing in some FedEx limbo where everything is untrackable. Send the paperwork right over as soon as you get back from your trip.

Here's the heart of my complaint: if we are required to purchase one thousand copies of a book - this alone is an over $14,000 tab - in order to be lucky enough to have an event with the author, you, as the publisher and the Maker of Demands, damn well better make sure that those books show up on the day the book goes on sale. We had a little girl start to cry today because her book wasn't in. She paid for it in advance and we told her she could pick it up on May 6th, but due to the incompetence of everyone down the line at Publisher X, we couldn't deliver. And that just sucks.

As of the close of business on the 6th of May, we still had not heard whether the books were even en route, let alone when we should expect their arrival. And we were contemplating a third Costco trip, as we were out of books again. You rock, Publisher X!