Month: April 2010

The Losers, Andy Diggle & Jock

The Losers, Andy Diggle & Jock

Originally published 2003-2006 by Vertigo Comics.  First collected in trade paperback format as The Losers: Ante Up, The Losers: Double Down, The Losers: Trifecta, The Losers: Close Quarters and The Losers: Engame.
Most recently collected as
The Losers: Book 1, Vertigo, 2010, 304 pages, ISBN 1-4012-2733-3 and
The Losers: Book 2, Vertigo, 2010, 480 pages, ISBN 1-4012-2923-9

Comic books are still best-known for super-heroes, which is a shame given the much larger universe of stories that they could be telling.  That’s part of why I was so interested in reading The Losers after seeing its movie adaptation: A action-adventure comic book series tackling contemporary geopolitics?  That’s promising.  Add to that premise an ensemble cast of sympathetic characters facing down a ruthless villain and you’re got enough material there to ape the experience of a big overblown action movie in comic-book format… and I can never get too many big overblown action movies.

The premise of the series may not be complicated, but it’s enough to get things rolling: A small team of operatives, having seen things they shouldn’t have seen, is double-crossed and left for dead by a high-ranking member of the American intelligence community named Max.  After recovering, they set out to avenge themselves by finding Max.  But that’s really an excuse for the writer to build elaborate heist scenarios, send his characters in desperate jeopardy, have them spout one-liners and eventually ease his way into a fantastically implausible threat to world peace.

Being a comic book, there’s little budgetary limitations over where and how the Losers end up tracking Max.  So it is that by the time the series is over, it will have taken us to the continental United States, Quatar, the West Indies, Pripyat, Afghanistan, London, the Persian Gulf and a few places in-between.  Try to make a movie with that location budget!  For that matter, try to make a movie in which so many outlandish action sequences are featured: Writer Andy Diggle clearly has a lot of fun writing a script solely limited by his imagination.

The best thing about The Losers is its cast of characters: Laconic Cougar, athletic hacker Jensen, transport specialist Pooch, leader Clay and shifty Rocque.  Add to that the dangerous presence of Aisha and the team is just about ready to face down any situation.  This turns out to be helpful, especially as they try to position themselves between run-of-the-mill anti-American enemies, the CIA and Max’s own Special Forces.

If The Losers’ objective was to deliver a spectacular action-adventure story, it certainly achieve its goals.  Trying to stop reading the series is difficult after the first volume and the richness of the locations, gadgets and geopolitical themes ought to satisfy everyone looking for a somewhat over-the-top techno-thriller.  The only false notes are to be found in the needlessly implausible and down-beat ending, which mows down a significant proportion of the cast in the service of a nonsensical plot that owes more to the worst Bond movies than to the somewhat realistic tone that the series embraced during most of its run.  It doesn’t entirely kill off the series, but it certainly tempers any built-up enthusiasm.

The other big weakness of The Losers is, of all things, the art: Jock’s kinetic style may be striking, but it’s noticeably darker, flatter and rougher than the industry standards.  Some will like it; others will find it ugly, under-drawn and disappointing.  It’s telling that most characters can only be identified thanks to gimmicky haircuts or other broad physical attributes.  The colouring doesn’t help, but then again there’s not a lot of opportunity for gradient volume in the blocky art the colourers have to work with.  There’s a reason why the script is what we remember about The Losers.

Still, now that the series is once again easily available in just two volumes (the first one covers most of the ground tackled by the movie adaptation, with significant changes; the second, much thicker volume concludes the entire comic book run.), it’s worth picking up for anyone looking for contemporary action/adventure movie experience with an unlimited production budget.  The ending may be underwhelming, the art may frequently suck, but it’s an enjoyable read nonetheless.  And there’s not one superpower in sight.

The Losers (2010)

The Losers (2010)

(In theatres, April 2010) Ensemble action movies are making a minor comeback in 2010, but sneaking in before The A-Team and The Expendables is this cheap, fast and grandly entertaining comic book adaptation.  The Losers isn’t that good a movie: The limited budget sometimes shows (especially for those who remember the source material’s hyperactive globe-trotting), coincidences abound and the action set pieces seldom make sense.  But those flaws are arguably what enables this film to be a fun throwback to the unapologetic Bruckheimeresque action movies of the late nineties.  The set-pieces make up in eye-popping originality what they lack in coherence, while the quips fly fast and sarcastic.  Thankfully for an ensemble picture, it’s the characters that bring The Losers above its B-grade material: Each one has a few things to do, and while Chris Evans and Zoe Saldana generally steal the focus away from Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s role as the leader of the bunch, Jason Patric has a surprisingly odd turn as the overwritten villain of the picture.  Sylvain White’s direction is hit-and-miss, but there are a few new tricks here and while the picture moves quickly, it doesn’t lose viewers in a flurry of incoherent cuts –which is another thing that The Losers does better than the rest of its recent action movie brethren.  Fans of the original comic book series will be disappointed to see that Andy Diggle’s geopolitical set-pieces have been toned down, pleased to note that the evil plot is completely different and generally amused to see dialogue bits, action moments and characterization details moved around: Most of what’s in this film follows the first two of the series’ five volumes, while the ending sets up at least another film in the series.  Box-office results may not guarantee that (it’s the kind of picture that generally appeals to a very specific audience), but I would certainly welcome a bit more time with the characters and their globe-trotting vengeance.

Anansi Boys, Neil Gaiman

Anansi Boys, Neil Gaiman

Morrow, 2005, 336 pages, C$36.95 hc, ISBN 978-0-06-051518-8

In fantasy circles, saying that one doesn’t care all that much for Neil Gaiman’s fiction is tantamount to an invitation to be lapidated.  The outrage is immediate: Neil is so nice!  Neil is such a great writer!  Neil has won so many awards! Well, yes, but no amount of heartfelt, diagrammed, possibly notarized disclaimers (Neil is nice!  Neil is a great writer!  Neil has won so many awards!) is enough to satisfy his many, many fans and make the point that some readers may not be receptive to Gaiman’s fiction, no matter how accomplished it is.

So it is that I’m always a bit surprised when I do get to enjoy one of Gaiman’s books after all.  I’m not an enthusiastic fantasy reader, and even less of a mythology-oriented reader.  But that’s exactly what Gaiman is writing.  In Anansi Boys, for instance, he goes digging into trickster mythologies to inform a light-hearted novel of contemporary fantasy.  Against all odds, it worked for me.

Part of my affection for Anansi Boys comes from how much it can be enjoyed on the slightest of fantasy levels.  When mild-mannered protagonist Fat Charlie discovers that his (Trickster God) father is dead, he has no clue as to how complicated his life is about to become.  On top of his grief, Charlie soon discovers that he has a vastly more extrovert brother named Spider.  Before long, Spider has taken Charlie’s girlfriend, caused him to be framed by a dishonest boss and upset a venerable peace between various supernatural entities.  Who has to fix everything?  Charlie, of course… and he may get to be less of a nerd once he’s done.

So it is that the biggest strength of Anansi Boys is that you can, if you so choose, skip over the more overly fantastical elements and passages of the book in order to focus on Charlie’s adventures.  This isn’t, strictly speaking, a really good way to read the novel: you’ll end up missing out on half the story and nine-tenth of its depths.  But if you’re in a hurry, and already halfway convinced that the novel will be dull no matter how much attention you can pay, it’s not a bad way to read it diagonally.  (It does mean not caring at all about the links between Anansi Boys and the Hugo Award-winning American Gods, though.)

But there is still a lot of fun in Anansi Boys even if you limit yourself to the more grounded elements of its story.  Fat Charlie (who’s not fat; it’s just a nickname that stuck) is an appealingly nebbish character, and his explanation of what it was to be the son of a Trickster God has a few hilarious moments, one of them involving dressing up for President’s Day.  His dramatic arc is well-accomplished, as he finds true love, discovers hidden reserves of strengths and even manages to bring back a bit of order and justice in the world and underworld.  The characters surrounding him are also interesting in their own ways, although it’s his outgoing brother who gets the share of the glory by being such an inveterate attention-hog.

As usual, Gaiman’s prose effortlessly moves in-between high comedy, meaty mythology and sensitive drama.  It’s astonishing how precisely he is able to reach his goals, even in changing modes throughout the novel: The funny stuff is funny, the sensitive passages are sensitive, and the mythological underpinning of the story does give it quite a bit of depth that a lesser writer wouldn’t necessarily have bothered with.

Not even a largely diagonal and inattentive reading can gloss over Gaiman’s gifts.  And that, ultimately, may be a telling test of any writer’s skills: being able to charm readers fundamentally unsuited to their brand of fiction, and allowing them to read the story at the level they choose.  Quite an achievement, that.

On Top of the World, Tom Barbash

On Top of the World, Tom Barbash

Harper Collins, 2003, 282 pages, C$39.95 hc, ISBN 0-06-051029-3

This should have been a really interesting book.

After all, the premise of On Top of the World is as simple as it is heart-wrenching: As dawn rose over New York on September 11, 2001, Cantor Fitzgerald was a high-flying financial services firm that employed seven hundred employees in its headquarters at the top of the World Trade Center.  By the end of the day, 658 employees –two third of the firm’s New York workforce- would be dead, and the company would be struggling to stay open after such a devastating loss.  The book is a description of the catastrophe that happened that day, and their recovery in the months that followed.

As a subject for a documentary, it’s gold.  You can feel your throat closing as the book describes how survivors made choices that either saved or doomed them.  We get to be in the head of Cantor Fitzgerald employees as they go through the events of the day and start worrying at the magnitude of their loss.  We sit at a conference table alongside the survivors of the company as they start grappling with the possibility that the company may simply have to close down.

A tough-eyed reporter experienced in dealing with such disaster recovery scenarios would have been able to make On Top of the World compelling reading, by focusing on the efforts of the survivors and describing what needed to be done at that time.  How do you re-form business units where everyone but a single person has died in a blink?  What IT challenges become crucial in offloading work to satellite offices?  How do you keep competitors at bay while rebuilding the capabilities to do business in this new environment?

But novelist Tom Barbash is after something different.  He is, first and foremost, a personal friend of Cantor Fitzgerald CEO Howard Lutnick, and his self-imposed mandate is to present the story of Cantor Fitzgerald’s renewal through Lutnick’s eyes.  It’s almost certainly the most dramatic choice, the most humane choice in presenting the events.  (Lutnick lost his own brother in the tragedy, and only escaped death because it was his daughter’s first day of school)  Alas, it quickly turns into defensive hagiography.

For when Americans recall Cantor Fitzgerald in the context of September 11, they usually recall two things: First, a teary-eyed Lutnick on national TV, grieving openly.  Then, media reports of Cantor Fitzgerald cutting off pay-checks to deceased employees only a few days after 9/11.  On Top of the World quickly becomes obsessed with setting the record straight about the media outrage that followed the second event: Chapters are spent explaining the business reasons leading to that decision, the frantic public-relations effort that followed the media criticism and the Lutnick’s feelings in the middle of increasingly-negative comments.

That, too, is an interesting story.  But the way it’s presented is neither objective nor overly convincing.  There’s barely an acknowledgement that Cantor Fitzgerald may conceivably have erred in cutting off pay-checks: The focus instead becomes Lutnick’s life of as he is forced to confront the unfair media criticism.  From a fascinating description of an organizational struggle, On Top of the World soon turns into a dull celebration of a specific person.

Meanwhile, the details of the company’s renewal are lost in the shuffle.  While the spotlight is on Lutnick and his gruelling efforts to correct disastrous PR, the suburban and London offices take over and save the company from bankruptcy.  Comparatively little is said about them, however: This is Lutnick’s book, as inspired by the “CEO as a hero” branch of business literature.

This doesn’t make On Top of the World a bad book, but it certainly limits its appeal and, at the very least, makes it quite a bit self-serving.  In-between the most fascinating passages, such as the description of the art collection that decorated the company’s offices and how a few of them were recovered from the wreckage, there’s a sense that only a very narrow portion of Cantor Fitzgerald’s incredible recovery after 9/11 is told through this book and given the most favourable and uninformative spin.  Bring in an objective reporter, tell the story of the entire organization, focus on the inevitable challenges rather than those caused by a PR blunder and the book would be quite a bit stronger for it.

Date Night (2010)

Date Night (2010)

(In theatres, April 2010) There’s something refreshing in seeing a comedy for adults that delivers entertainment while avoiding the crassest demands of teenage audiences.  It’s not that Date Night is short on violence, profanity, sexual references and overall bad behaviour, but it refuses to indulge in them for their own sake.  The result is, for lack of a better expression, well-mannered.  Date Night is seldom mean or meaningless; it features two mature comedians (Steve Carell and Tina Fey) at the height of their skills and it’s obviously aimed at an older target audience of long-time married couples.  Date Night has too many plotting coincidences to be a perfect film, but it does end up better than average, and that’s already not too bad.  If the script logic is often contrived, it’s far better at making us believe that the lead couple’s reactions are what bright-but-ordinary people would say or do in dangerous situations, rather than what the Hollywood stereotypes may dictate.  There are even a few particularly good sequences in the mix, including a deliriously funny car chase through the streets of New York City, and a thinly-veiled excuse for Carell and Fey to dance as badly as they can.  A bunch of recognizable character actors also appear for a scene or two, from the sadly underused William Fichtner to an always-shirtless Mark Wahlberg and a pasta-fed Ray Liotta.  Add to that the somewhat original conceit of involving a bored married couple in a criminal caper (rather than using the thriller elements to make a couple “meet cute” as is far more common) and Date Night is original enough, and well-made enough to be noticeable in the crop of films at the multiplex.  A few laughs, a few thrills and a few nods at the difficulty of staying married; what else could we ask from a middle-of-the-road Hollywood action comedy?

Hot Tub Time Machine (2010)

Hot Tub Time Machine (2010)

(In theatres, April 2010) It used to be that high school jocks beat up nerds and took their lunches.  Now, in this kinder and gentler world, they’re just stealing their movie ideas and using them in frat-boy comedies.  I kid, but not much: for if time-travel is the conceit at the core of Hot Tub Time Machine, it’s about the least science-fictional science fiction film of the year so far. The time-traveling becomes a pretext for jokes at the expense of the eighties, in a plot generously watered in alcohol, crass language, loose morals and enough crude sexual material to fully warrant an R-rating.  Three middle-aged losers wallow at the core of the story, trying to recapture their youthful binge-drinking episodes.  While John Cusack does fine with his usual shtick, he’s almost the only likable character in-between other repellent lunatics and losers.  In-between a dumb-as-dirt fatherhood mystery, constant threats of amputation, plentiful swearing, superficial laughs at eighties fashion and unexplainably homophobic set-pieces, Hot Tub Time Machine isn’t much of a recommendation for R-rated comedies.  There are, to be fair, a number of chuckles along the way, from squirrel jokes to one reference to Hunter S. Thompson.  But little of this manages to patch up the unpleasantness of the rest of the film, which ends up leaving a less than pleasant impression.  If nothing else, consider that the film’s musical highlight is a cheerfully anachronistic performance of “Let’s Get Retarded” in 1986.  The future, as presented by Hot Tub Time Machine, is even dumber than the mid-eighties.  Now that’s saying something.

The Man Who Ate the World, Jay Rayner

The Man Who Ate the World, Jay Rayner

Henry Holt, 2008, 273 pages, C$28.00 hc, ISBN 978-0-8050-8669-0

If you’re like me (and, on general principle, I hope you’re not), the notion of a high-end restaurant stands somewhere between irrelevance and affront.  It’s not as if I’ll ever need to go to such a place (or spend that much money on food), and my middle-class populist sensibilities are vaguely disgusted that such places exist as displays of conspicuous consumption.  No matter how much I keep telling myself that expensive multi-starred restaurants are about the experience, I still can’t place them in my universe of five-dollar sandwiches and weekly fifty-dollar grocery bills.

Fortunately, there’s restaurant critic Jay Rayner to go do the heavy eating in my stead.  In The Man Who Ate the World, Rayner embarks on a quest for “the perfect dinner”, whatever that may be.  Going around the world and making his way to high-end restaurants, Rayner takes the opportunity to reflect on what makes a perfect meal, what justifies such three-star experiences and other related issues coming to mind as he jets between his home base of London and his targets in Las Vegas, Moscow, Dubai, Tokyo, New York and Paris.  The rationale of the book, as stated right after a mock warning not to read it while hungry (“Hunger can seriously affect your ability to concentrate and, after a few pages, you will be incapable of appreciating either the grace or the subtleties of my writing” [P.1]) is to investigate the result of more than two decades’ worth of changes in the upper gastronomy landscape.  Since 1990, haute-cuisine has escaped the confines of Paris and is now to be found in not-so-likely places from Las Vegas to Dubai, neither of whom have much of a local food culture.  What does this mean for the current state of eating around the world?

Fortunately, Rayner’s not your average restaurant critic.  Born in a showbiz family, he became a solid investigative journalist before turning to restaurant reviewing and novel-writing.  You can feel all of those influences coming together in The Man Who Are the World, as Rayner reminisces about childhood experiences, explores the socioeconomic context of the restaurants ecosystem he’s studying and tells the story of his odyssey like an accomplished raconteur.  While the book may share a superficial resemblance with Anthony Bourdain’s A Cook’s Tour, they’re substantially different: Bourdain’s travelogue is about discovering local foods of the world (and getting drunk along the way) whereas Rayner aims to find commonalities between high cuisine outlets around the globe.  Both of their Tokyo experiences are worth reading in their own ways.  (Incidentially, Rayner does mentions Bourdain on page 145, and not entirely favourably.)

The first stop on Rayner’s worldwide tour is Las Vegas, a place that has invented itself as a culinary destination thanks to large amounts of gambler-fuelled money infusions.  Never mind the famous all-you-can-eat buffets: Las Vegas is now home to a number of high end restaurants and that’s where Rayner first wrestles with the ethics of eating on the house, and restaurants that have to import their foodstuff over hundreds of kilometres given the lack of a local food-growing infrastructure.  In Moscow, Rayner confronts the consequence of a restaurant scene that caters to the unsophisticated oligarchs that have filled the void left by the fall of communism.  Organized crime, kitsch, eye-watering prices and the shadow of the Soviet Empire are all on the menu.  Rayner’s not entirely happy about it all, but the chapter is a lot of fun to read.

In Dubai, he begins at the Burj Al-Arab Hotel by reflecting that eating at an expensive restaurant is like temporarily living as a rich person without the permanent moral karmic debt that becoming a rich person requires.  A passage about Gordon Ramsay becomes necessary when explaining how Dubai became a gastronomy destination by importing foreign expertise, much in the same way the rest of the city was built.  Not-so-random digressions on trying to keep fit as a restaurant critic and the hollow mirage of authenticity quickly follow.

However weird Dubai can be, Tokyo is even stranger.  Rayner manages to find ways to eat both well and badly in the Japanese capital, in trying to explain the very different culture that still manages to confound westerners even after decades of cross-cultural influence.  He eats indescribable stuff while doing his best to describe it to us.  He visits a fish market, has an emergency bowel movement, gets lost in trying to find small restaurants and finishes his chapter by telling us about an unforgettable meal in the care of a sushi master.

Following such a peak experience is tough even in New York, so Rayner changes tactics and goes on a good old-fashioned restaurant crawl alongside food blogger Steve Plotnicki: Five high-end restaurants in a single evening, a sprint that ends up inviting reflections on the relationship between New York and its restaurant, the Zagat guide, Rayner’s Internet gastroporn habit and what a place’s clientele says about it in a passage subtitled “Hell is Other People.”

London is a return to family, familiarity, bad experiences at expensive restaurants and quite a bit of autobiographical material.  But that’s just a warm-up for the book’s last expedition in Paris, an upper-class Super-Size Me in which Rayner sets out to eat at three-star restaurants every single day for a week.  (It begins with a medical check-up.)  Part of Rayner’s goal is to find out if eating every day at a three-star restaurants makes the experience slide into familiarity.  What he finds out is that while one can get used to rich food on a daily basis, there are still worlds of difference even between expensive restaurants: His good experiences at some places are magnified by the bad ones at others.  Still, it’s impossible to read about his lunch at L’Arpège without feeling a vicarious thrill, especially when the experience at that restaurant alone end up costing him a (low) four-figure sum.

The conclusion of the book (“Check, Please”) may not be what you’d expect.  In-between reflecting on the state of high-end world cuisine circa 2009 and all of its social and environmental implications, Rayner starts asking himself how long he still wants to stay in the restaurant-reviewing business.  As this review is written, he’s still actively updating his column on the Guardian site… but maybe “not indefinitely.  Just for a while.” [P.270]  After such an all-star tour of the world’s kitchens, who could blame him?

Clash of the Titans (2010)

Clash of the Titans (2010)

(In theatres, April 2010) Sword-and-sandal epics are worthless without an overwrought sense of melodrama, and that’s the single best reason to recommend Clash of the Titans despite a weak script, inconsistent directing and lacklustre performances by actors who should know better.  Three words from Liam Neeson to convince you:  “RELEASE THE KRAKEN!” (Thesis: All movies are improved by a character shouting “RELEASE THE KRAKEN!”) I don’t recall the 1981 original in enough detail to make useful comparisons, so let us consider this remake on its own terms: a mishmash of Greek mythology, action-movie sequences, and blockbuster fantasy trappings.  Among several better actors playing the pantheon, Sam Worthington doesn’t have much to do drama-wise as Perseus (he gets a team and loses it almost as quickly), but after Avatar and Terminator: Salvation the film should do fine in polishing his niche as the guy to play non-entirely-human action heroes.  He gets to run around in a tunic, fight scorpions, cut the head of Medusa, and all the other things a demigod is expected to do.  Direction-wise, Louis Leterrier’s action scenes are uneven: The scorpion fight takes place in clear sunlight with decently long cuts, but the Medusa and Kraken sequence are a bit of an overcut mess even though the CGI feels a bit better than average.  Still, the fun of the picture lies in the arch leaden quality of the dialogue and the fact that everyone seems to be playing the material as straight as possible.  It’s not great art, it may not even be great entertainment, but it does what it has to do, and that should be enough.

How to Train Your Dragon (2010)

How to Train Your Dragon (2010)

(In theatres, April 2010) There really isn’t anything new or all that innovative about How to Train Your Dragon, at least from a first glance at the script: The story about a teen outcast discovering inner reserves of courage along with secrets about a terrible menace will feel intensely familiar to anyone over the age of ten.  But it’s all in the execution, and once the end credits roll, the film feels like a satisfying success.  While the film takes a while to accelerate, and too-often passes its time treading over familiar sequences, everything becomes better once we’re in the air along with the dragons.  Jay Baruchel’s creaky voice performance adds a lot to the lead character; while the 3D is so well done that it looks fine even in 2D.  While one may quibble about the pro-dragon propaganda, or the traumatic use of an amputation trope, this “boy and his pet dragon” is slight but competently made.  Older viewers may not remember much of How to Train Your Dragon after a few days, but they’re not its target audience… and they’ll tolerate repeat viewings well enough.

Ugly Americans, Ben Mezrich

Ugly Americans, Ben Mezrich

Morrow, 2004, 271 pages, C$38.95 hc, ISBN 0-06-057500-X

After a moderate success as a thriller writer, Ben Mezrich finally found the winning formula with Bringing down the House, a book that blended true facts, blackjack-beating tricks, big winnings and fictional narrative tricks in order to give readers a taste of fast-earned money.  He repeated the formula with Busting Vegas, but in-between those two gambling books came Ugly Americans, “The True Story of Ivy League Cowboys Who Raided the Asian Markets for Millions”.  Some kinds of business, after all, are nothing more than high-stakes gambling and in telling this story, Mezrich describes the life of a young trader who went to Japan and made a small fortune betting even bigger fortunes.

In some ways, Ugly Americans complements the story of Nick Leeson, the infamous British trader who found himself free to bet big from a faraway Asian trading outpost of the venerable Barings… and literally broke the bank.  The nineties were a good time for traders willing to exploit the wild and mercurial nature of the Asian markets: There weren’t as many players over there than in the saturated American and European markets, the regulations were quite a bit looser than on Wall Street and the line between legal and illegal activity was considerably thinner, much like the line separating organized crime from legitimate business activity.

It’s in that context that ex-footballer and recent graduate “John Malcolm” is hired to execute orders from an expatriate trader living in Japan.  Sent to Osaka despite knowing next to nothing about Japan, Malcolm grows under the tutelage of his boss, experiences a massive earthquake first-hand, falls for the daughter of a well-connected businessman, finds himself working far too close to Nick Leeson and survives in-between loud bar crawls, conspicuous consumption and power demonstration by elements of the Yakusa.

There’s something both exhilarating and repellent in Mezrich’s trademark glorification of people having more money than sense.  The fact that they are making it from trades rather than gambling makes little difference in the way Mezrich portrays them.  Fast cars, expensive prostitutes and wild parties: These, apparently, are what money gets you if you’re in the right place and the right time to take advantage of the system.  Just like a sports movie, Ugly Americans ends with a Big Score that allows the protagonist to step back from the madness, but not before (in Mezrich’s familiar dramatic arc) a friend is severely affected by the rough trade in which they are involved.  You can almost feel the author react gleefully to the presence of the Yakuza in his story: They’re the perfect shadowy menace, acting in all-powerful positions within a Japanese society that is, we’re told in not-so-subtle terms, inseparable from organized crime.

But what are a few xenophobic comments for an audience looking for a few thrills?  It’s not as if Merzich swears fealty to truth: Like his other so-called non-fiction books, he obscures enough details to protect the identity of his sources and rearranges so many events for maximal drama that the entire narrative can be read as fiction.

What’s more embarrassing to admit is that it works: Ugly Americans is a quick and enjoyable read, a vicarious look at another culture and a completely different lifestyle.  It’s best to ignore some of Mezrich’s most obviously pumped-up melodramatic moments (although the juxtaposition of an ethics class with a description of the Leeson meltdown is worth a few smirks) but otherwise Ugly Americans is a splendid read halfway between a confabulating business memoir and a practical advice manual on why westerners should avoid doing business in Asia.

This isn’t to say that the real story is unavailable to those who want to dig a bit.  A quick look at online reviews of the book will uncover a number of revealing mistakes, and a few credible-sounding guesses as to the identity of the trader on which Ugly Americans is based.  People who know quite a bit more about trading –and more specifically westerners trading in Japan during the mid-nineties– will be able to piece together the real story and point out which part of the book are obvious nonsense.  For the rest of us, though, it’s another typical Mezrich dramatic non-fiction book; good enough to escape and imagine life as a high-roller, moral scruples temporarily suspended.

Your Hate Mail Will be Graded, John Scalzi

Your Hate Mail Will be Graded, John Scalzi

Tor, 2010 reprint of 2008 original, 368 pages, C$17.99 pb, ISBN 978-0-7653-2711-6

Books often have complicated publication histories, and so it is that the content of Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded: A Decade of Whatever, 1998-2008 first existed as blog posts, then as a limited edition book from Subterranean Press before being republished by Tor for the mass market.  It also won a Hugo between the first and second edition of the book: The Tor edition is the first book I’ve seen with the new “Hugo Award” logo printed on the back.

Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded is an attempt to present the best posts of the first decade of John Scalzi’s Whatever blog in book form.  Scalzi is now often best-known as a science-fiction writer, but his blog usually presents a mixture of pop-culture, politics, writing advice, autobiography, takes on the controversies-du-jour and, generally speaking, anything else that catches his interest.  Thanks to a background that includes a degree in philosophy, corporate writing assignments, science-fiction novels and a newspaper column, Scalzi writes in a way that is entertaining no matter the subject.  Whatever presents an addictive blend of clear prose, amusing writing, serious arguments, original reporting and a keen understanding of what keeps a readership coming back for more.

Since I’ve been reading Whatever for about five years, much of the book feels familiar: A number of Scalzi’s best-known pieces, such as the “Being Poor” op-ed [P.297], “10 Things Teenage Writers Should Know About Writing” [P.213] or the trip report from the Creation Museum [P.135] are reprinted here, alongside pieces I had enjoyed at the time but re-discovered while reading the book, such as “I Hate Your Politics” [P.181], “The Lie of Star Wars as entertainment” [P.119] and “Unasked-For Advice to New Writers About Money” [P.253]  Finally, there’s the first half-decade of Whatever that I never got to read in real-time, the best bits of whom are reprinted here, including a “Best (…) of the Millennium” series dating from 1999.

John Scalzi having a lot of experience as a reviewer, it’s no surprise to find him providing hints in his introduction by pointing out the ways in which Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded can be enjoyed: As an early collection of the “blog post” form, as a cultural capsule of the eventful 1998-2008 decade or as pieces of purely entertaining writing.  He’s right on all count, of course: Reading this book is like digging into a bowl of popcorn… it’s difficult to stop before the end.

But as I try to flip back through the book to find specific posts and titles, I am also reminded of the most annoying “feature” of the book: A deliberate lack of organization or, as the back cover boasts, “a decade of Whatever, presented in delightfully random form, just as it should be.”  The pieces aren’t arranged chronologically, thematically or by word count.  There are no sub-headers at the top of the pages, nor anything looking like a table of content or an index.  Want to find that piece that discussed that thing you liked so much?  Start flipping through the book, because there’s no other way to find what you want.  A note at the beginning of the book further states that this is to replicate the Whatever reading experience, but that’s pushing adherence to the blog form a bit too far: Web readers have access to chronological archives and a search engine.  Book readers are, well, stuck with a shapeless mess.  Might as well go to Google and start searching because as a reference, Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded is actively hostile to any kind of organization.

This nit-picky bibliographical nit aside, Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded is about as good as the “Collection of Blog Posts” form ever gets.  Scalzi’s writing is compelling even outside the context of a web browser, and the look back at some of his earlier posts show little difference from the latter, more widely-read pieces in terms of sheer reading appeal.  It may even earn Scalzi a few new fans while his current ones wait for his next novel.

Flicker, Theodore Roszak

Flicker, Theodore Roszak

Bantam, 1992 reprint of 1991 original, 672 pages, UK#6.99 pb, ISBN 0-553-40480-6

A dead movie reviewer recommended this book to me.

OK, so he wasn’t dead at the time, nor was he addressing me in particular, but I was an avid reader of the Usenet group rec.arts.movies.current-film in 2003, at the time the much-missed Toronto-based film critic Peter Harkness wrote a recommendation for Theodore Roszak’s Flicker.  I can’t say that I hunted it down in any serious fashion, but the book stayed in my mind and when I happened to see copies in a dealer’s room at a British SF convention in early 2010, I immediately grabbed a copy.

And what a great recommendation that was.  Flicker’s slug-line is “Sunset Boulevard meets The Name of the Rose”, and that does manage to give an idea of the movie trivia and occult knowledge that are blended so successfully in Roszak’s novel.  It’s a coming-of-age story that becomes a historical investigation before turning a horror novel.  It’s crammed with real and invented detail, and not even the radical technological changes that have happened since 1991 can manage to completely defuse its paranoid premise.

It starts leisurely enough, as a young Los Angeles man interested in movies during the fifties is taken under the wing of a complicated woman for whom movies and life are inseparable.  She understands films like few others, and her tutelage of our narrator is part argument, part passionate bedroom exertion.  Our protagonist is warped by the experience, but his true fall down the rabbit hole of Flicker starts at a wild Hollywood party in which they manage to steal a treasured movie from collectors.  Alas, it’s not the film canister they’re looking for, and so they end up with a film by mysterious German director Max Castle.  The film has a raw horrific power that neither character can understand, and so begins our protagonist’s journey to discover the truth about Castle’s movies… and then the real story behind Castle himself.

The first third of Flicker can be read as an affectionate homage to the (maybe) more innocent fifties and sixties, an era where students discussed movies with passion, and Hollywood existed as a playground to the stars.  There’s a great portrait of a small hole-in-the-wall cinema, and a nostalgic depiction of what it felt to be a young man living on a mixture of eroticism and pure love of cinema.  The copious amount of period detail is all the more astonishing once we realize that the novel was written well before the rise of the Internet and wide availability of historical film information.

But as the Max Castle mystery grows deeper, the novel shifts gear to something darker.  Something isn’t right about Castle’s movies, and this mystery soon comes to envelop our narrator’s life.  There are tricks inside those films that go well beyond subliminal messages to directly manipulate viewers’ brains.  As our narrator finds out more (twice getting information by sleeping with aging movie stars), the novels grows more and more sombre: Castle wasn’t the only one out there with the knowledge to manipulate people through the flicker of movies… nor the worst one.

As Flicker advances, it also dives deeper into a conspiracy theory that blends religious history and manipulation –movies not only being used as instruments of propaganda, but of social decay.  By the end of the book, Roszak makes an argument that purports to explain the acceleration and depravity of modern pop culture, using a number of outrageous fictional examples.  It’s an effective creep-fest as long as you don’t think too much about the overblown darkness of the author’s vision, or how crime rates have declined quite a bit since when this book was written.

It’s too bad that Flicker moves too leisurely to sustain the impact of its conceit, and often gets lost in the meandering of its own conspiracies.  A tighter third act could have helped the novel keep some of the impact that dilutes away in its extended epilogue.  Obviously, it’s best suited for hard-core film geeks: while casual moviegoers will like it, those with more historical knowledge of films will enjoy the references even more.  Still, it’s quite a wonderful reading experience: The dense narration is interesting, and the conspiracy theory is fit to momentarily blow anyone’s mind…

But there’s a reason why Flicker keeps much of its cult appeal even today.  It may even have inspired a few other works since then: Ramsey Campbell’s The Grin of the Dark runs along the same lines as Flicker, with a hero tracking down a demonic director using resources that include the Internet Movie Database.  As Harkness suggested in his recommendation, this isn’t one of the many novels about Hollywood and filmmaking; it’s a novel about movies and the experience of watching them.  Now that it’s back into print, it ought to move up on any film buff’s reading list.

London, Edward Rutherfurd

London, Edward Rutherfurd

Fawcett, 1998 re-edition of 1997 original, 1126 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-449-00263-2

I went through much of James Michener’s back-catalogue a long time ago, but no one else since then has managed to re-create the kind of sweeping epic stories for which he was known.  In novels like Chesapeake, Michener told the story of geographical areas over centuries and generations of the same families.  Places may have been the subject of his books, but the families were his characters and the impact of seeing stories unfold over decades could be profound.

So when I announced my plans to go spend a few days in London, I gladly accepted a recommendation to read Edward Rutherfurd’s brick-sized London.  I could spend my time on City-bound public transportation reading about the place I was exploring.  It made perfect sense: after all, one of my most useful travel tips is “bring the heaviest, densest paperback you can find”.

London certainly weighs in on the heavy side: At more than 1100 dense pages, the paperback has a heft that hints at the history contained therein.  Describing London from 54 BC to 1997, Rutherfurd’s novel begins with maps of the city, and a chart of character names that extends over two thousand years and nearly a dozen families.  The stage is set for an epic.

What we get is more akin to 20 short stories (some of them longer than others) taking place over London’s eventful history.  The families often become more important characters than members of any particular generation, as the haughty and dishonest Silversleeves battle it out with the long-time citizen Doggets, the tenacious Bulls or the swashbuckling Barnickels.  Every fifty pages or so, the narrative stops and another one begins… sometimes years, sometimes centuries after the previous one.  As London grows around the families, we get a sense of the development of the city, learn a few factoids and are enlightened about the reasons things are so.  It all reaches a climax of sorts during World War Two’s Blitz, as a millennia-old treasure comes back to haunt the descendants of those who lost it.

As a fictional tribute to a world-class city, there’s no denying that London meets its goals: It’s a grand-scale epic in the old meaning of the term.  More than a hundred characters throughout London’s lengthy history often lead us back to the chart of who’s who in the chronology.  The amount of historical research that has crafted the novel is astonishing and convincing at once.  It’s an amazing achievement, and yet it could have been just a bit better.

Referring to Michener is useful, in that Michener understood that families became characters in their own right, and through generations, enjoyed dramatic arcs that paid off at the climax of the book.  While Rutherfurd does make use of that principle to create a narrative that spans the short stories of each era (such as the strange and sometimes frustrating changes in fortune for the Doggetts), his family fortunes don’t always unfold in dramatically rewarding fashion, and that’s part of why he doesn’t quite manage to make the ending of the novel resonate as much as it could have.  The Silversleeves, perfect antagonists as they are, essentially disappear from the book’s last third and their sudden reappearance isn’t entirely satisfying.  London’s overall dramatic arc isn’t as gripping as it could have been, and a number of loose threads could have been tightened far more efficiently.

Then there’s the heaviness of Rutherfurd’s prose which may be off-putting to readers who aren’t used to lengthy historical epics.  I will blame planes, trains and busses for not reading every single sentence carefully; nonetheless, few will be faulted for reading chunks of the book diagonally, trying to get to the next fascinating part: London isn’t always interesting, as you would expect from a loose assembly of twenty short stories.

All of this being said, I still keep a very fond memory of reading London on the plane landing at Heathrow, in the Tube, and on the train bringing me back to London from Brighton and (later) Paris.  It tickled my neurons pleasantly to be stuck in a feedback loop where I would read about the sights I was about to see, or just did see, and gain just a bit of extra context by picturing the events of the book taking place around me.  In one amusing case of reality/fiction feedback, I ended up mystified by “Petty France Street” for a few hours until the novel explained why it was named so.  If there’s a better way of reading London, I can’t imagine it.