Saturday, December 29, 2007

Jasper Fforde's Deep Well of Cleverness

Jasper Fforde isn't the first to think of putting well-known fictional characters into different, incongruous circumstances. Whether it's the graphic artists responsible for the original League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, or Baz Luhrman, the director of the 1996 modern Romeo and Juliet starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Clare danes in the title roles, sometimes you just meet a character too good to pass up.

It's a lot harder to give the same treatment to nursery rhymes, though. Someone like Miss Havisham from Great Expectations is a fully-formed character who passes the Perkins test (you'd recognize her on the street and know how to react). How would you characterize Mary Mary Quite Contrary, though? She's a good gardener, sure, but is she young? old? nice? unpleasant? funny? smart? With most of the nursery rhymes, there's nothing to go on, but in his Nursery Crimes series, Jasper Fforde manages to make much out of them.

The two stars of the book are Jack Spratt and his partner, Mary Mary, who together make up the Nursery Crimes Investigator unit (NCI). In The Fourth Bear, they are investigating the disappearance of Golidlocks. They deal with many peripheral distractions, such as the escape of the notorious, merciless serial killer the Gingerbreadman, and the mystery of Jack's used car, recently purchased from Dorian Gray's Used Automobiles which never shows any damage no matter what you do to it (I laughed at that device for about ten minutes). The convoluted plot also involves explosions, cucumbers and dates with aliens. It was quite good, but I wonder if Jasper Fforde hasn't decided to retire the Nursery Crimes series. The Fourth Bear is a couple of years old now, and the ending features a wrap-up of what happened to all the characters. I like the Thursday Next books better, but I'd forgotten how funny the Nursery Crimes were.

Sunday, December 23, 2007


Danielle Ganek's Lulu Meets God and Doubts Him was one of those books that I'd been noticing in bookstores for a while now. It came home with me from my last trip to the library, and I don't really know what to say about it.

Readers of this blog will know that's unusual for me. After spending a few days with a book, I can usually form some kind of opinion. Generally, they'll make me laugh, or make me think differently about something. Sometimes, they'll make me wonder what the point was, and on one memorable occasion, they'll be so bloody awful that even nine months after I finished it, I still blog about it once a month (Citizen Girl anyone?). I can usually at least say that I considered the book either a fun way to pass some time or a colossal waste of time and paper.

Lulu, however, didn't really spark any of these feelings in me. I've put off writing about it for a while because of that. I can't even really say that it was boring or unmemorable. I remember it, all right: narrated by "gallerina" and aspiring artist Mia McMurray, it is the tale of how the attempt to acquire a painting (the title of the book) by an artist who was hit by a car and killed the night of his opening affects all of those involved. The niece of the deceased painter and several well-known collectors all attempt to stake their claim. In the midst of all this are pretentious gallery owners (like Mia's boss), Mia's snotty fellow gallerinas, a sexy art dealer, and a sexy but rough Irish artist. Mia speaks as your guide through this universe, a docent perhaps, encouraging you to notice this and observe that. The chapter headings are clever, generally phrased as invitations ("Please Come For March Book Club at the home of Mrs. Martin Better"). And Mia herself is likeable enough.

So what's missing? I still don't know. I'm not even sure if it's missing from the book, or missing from me. But even after a week's worth of thought, I can still state definitively that I have no opinion about Lulu Meets God and Doubts Him. I can't even peg it as typical chick lit, because it's really not. So if anyone out there has read it and has any thoughts, I hope you post them. I'd be interested to hear them. I can't conjure up a one.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

The Further Misadventures of Stephanie Plum

I've never been big into mysteries, or serials, but several years ago, I started reading the Stephanie Plum books by Janet Evanovich and got hooked.

Unlike most mysteries, these are pretty safe to read even in the scariest of circumstances. Along with your flashlight, blanket and bottle of water, you can pack one confidently on your next overnight trip alone to the abandoned house near the graveyard where the triple murder was committed on Halloween night. The biggest danger is that the ghost of the murderer will find you by following the sound of your laughter.

Stephanie Plum is not your stereotypical bounty hunter. She got into the business after being laid off from the lingerie company where she worked. Unable to find a job in her field, she did what any self-respecting Jersey girl would do: she blackmailed her cousin into hiring her at his bail bonds agency. Her co-workers are Lula, former 'ho and current filing clerk; Connie, the office manager/Mafia liason; and Ranger, the ultra-macho, super-sexy, super-scary bounty hunter entrusted with bringing in the most high-bond cases. Stephanie covers the small-time criminals, and something always goes wrong during apprehension. One guy saw her coming, took off all of his clothes and slathered himself in baby oil. Another guy, an amateur taxidermist, denotes an exploding beaver bomb on her, covering her in hair and guts. Even the willing ones are funny: one woman looked forward to her time in jail, explaining that she'd needed some dental work done for a while now.

The main attraction of the books is Stephanie's tangled personal life. Over the course of the series, two men have been vying for her attention: Ranger, mentioned above, and Joe Morelli, a police officer, onetime ladies' man, and Stephanie's high school sweetheart. Stephanie also has to contend with her gossip-fearing mother ("Erna Malecki's daughter has never burned down a funeral home"), her crazy grandmother (her main hobby is attending viewings, and she doesn't let a closed casket deter her), and her father. Her sister made an appearance in the last few books, but is absent from the newest one, Lean Mean Thirteen.

The plot of these books has always been somewhat incidental to me. I come for Stephanie and her hilarious life. These books will never be mistaken for War and Peace, that's true. But they're a fun read, especially for this time of year when your relaxation time is short.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

The Suckiest Bunch of Sucks that ever Sucked

I try not to do too much stuff just because someone on Craigslist says to. But someone on Craigslist recommended the book The Devil's Candy by Julie Salamon. I went for it, and ended a very pleasureable week with it last night.

As I read the book, I wondered, what makes a work of nonfiction interesting? On the same library trip, I checked out a biography of Sir Thomas Mallory, author of Le Morte D'Arthur. I read the book in college and enjoyed it greatly, and was interested to know more about the author's life. I figured that since I'd been very interested in Arthurian legend, and liked European history, I'd like the book. Hated it. Abandoned after about 40 pages. This book, on the other hand, is about the making of a movie I didn't see and only dimly remember, based on a book I haven't read. And it held my attention all the way through. I was actually sorry when it ended.

The book is about the making of the 1990 movie "The Bonfire of the Vanities," starring Tom Hanks, Melanie Griffith and Bruce Willis and directed by Brian De Palma. Unlike the movie, however, hundreds of other people have major roles in the book. Ann Roth, the wardrobe designer. Eric Schwab, the second unit director, responsible for the scenes in the movie that establish mood. Lucy Fisher, Rob Friedman, and other execs at Warner Brothers. Aimee Morris and the other production assistants. Salamon thoughtfully provides a list of players before her tale even opens, which I found myself referring back to frequently.

Salamon keeps the book interesting by putting real characters into it. As she follows Eric Schwab out onto the airport runway in pursuit of the most spectacular plane landing scene he could film, she also follows the thoughts in his head: his burning ambition, his desire for recognition, his dreams of doing his own picture, so that you see why it matters. You get invested in everyone's petty triumphs and setbacks in the course of making the film. You're happy for Aimee Morris, who earns a promotion from production assistant to Brian De Palma's personal assistant. You cheer for Schwab when he gets his shot and wins a $100 bet with De Palma that he could never film a plane landing innovative enough to make the final cut of the movie. You feel De Palma's frustration at not being able to find the courtroom he needs for the movie's pivotal scene. And you're pissed at the studio for shutting down the New York production and moving it to Los Angeles where they had more control. Yet, when you hear the decision from their angle, it makes sense too.
This book is a good look at how movies are actually made. If you've ever wondered just what a grip does, or what exactly is the responsibility of the production designer, this book will explain it better than any of those "Who Does What in the Movies" types of books. It explores the millions of decisions that have to be made on every single shot (day or night? how many people in the background? what kind of weather? what will the hair look like? makeup? clothing? how about on the background people?). You can see where $40 million dollars could go. You may even be amazed that it's not a whole lot more.

Bonfire flopped. I'm not ruining the ending by telling you that, even if you don't remember on your own. The title of the last chapter is "You've gotta be a genius to make a movie this bad", and you can feel the book building towards a less-than-satisfactory finished product. The book made me want to see for myself, so I rented the movie the other night. I fell asleep before the end, but I didn't like it much. I thought Tom Hanks was a total nonentity in his role. He was supposed to be a shallow, venal bond trader and philanderer. He came off like a stick of vanilla. The movie was slow-moving, but funny at parts. And yet, I could see its potential. Eric Schwab's opening skyline shot from the Chrysler Building was breathtaking, as was his sunset Concorde landing. I liked the way the trading room floor was shot, with the distortion around the edges, and the deal scene shot from overhead ("from the perspective of a true Master of the Universe.") It was a good bad movie.

It was hard to tell the true moral of this story. The problems with the film didn't seem to be easy to lay at the feet of any one individual. It was more like a stacking effect. And maybe also bad timing: the book was supposed to be the definitive 80s satire, and yet the movie came out as that era was ending. It was too early to be a period piece, too late to feel contemporary. Salamon alluded to problems with adaptation, as well: how the book had an edginess that would be difficult to translate to the big screen. Tom Wolfe had minimal involvement in the film project, and once it was released, stayed diplomatic. Maybe involving the author more would've saved it.

Or maybe not. This movie should've been a winner, packed with big-name actors, based on a best-selling novel, with an excellent director. They tested it several times and re-edited based on the results, and it still flopped, grossing only 15.4 million over 45 days. I came to appreciate what a tricky business it is to forecast what people will like. Even with all of Hollywood's research methods, they still get it wrong -- frequently. Not true for Salamon. She wrote an excellent book about moviemaking, and I recommend it. I don't know how much of it still holds true, but I'd love to see her write another similar book if she hasn't already, now that it's been nearly 20 years.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Zoos, not Zeus: The Modern Ark by Vicki Croke

I carried this book around with me for the past couple of weeks, and would bring it to the break room to read during lunch. Invariably, though, someone would walk in and sit down at the table with me and ask what my book was about. And they always thought I said "Zeus", but it's really about zoos, and much more interesting than a book about Zeus would probably be.

Erstwhile readers may recognize the author's name from The Lady and the Panda, the incredible true tale of how a dress designer and socialite succeeded in getting a live panda out of a remote region of China where seasoned adventurers had failed. The Modern Ark is an entirely different sort of book, but is guaranteed to raise issues you've probably never even thought about unless you work in a zoo.

Unless you've been living under a rock, you know that this planet is poised to lose a great deal of its biodiversity in as short a time as the next 20 years. It's enough to scare the hell out of anyone other than Bush and Cheney, but the zoo community is on the front lines of trying to do something about it.

What, though? Is it better to save animals in the wild or in the zoo? Well, the wild, of course, but habitat destruction and human encroachment make it impossible for some species to survive. So, how do you choose what goes in your zoo? The animals Croke calls "charismatic megafauna" (you know, pandas and white tigers and whatnot) are guaranteed draws. When the baby panda was born at the National Zoo, it caused a national uproar. Their server kept crashing because so many people were logging on to watch the Panda Cam. Tickets to see the panda sold out faster than Hannah Montana. It brought in a lot of money, which the zoo needs to keep going. But these megafauna aren't representative of the wild. There are more lizards, fish, invertebrates, rodents and bugs out there, but will the public wait in line for three hours to see a rare Amazonian slug? Is it better to interbreed subspecies and combine the Siberian, Bengal and Sumatran tigers into a "tiger soup" or should you keep them separate, in the hope that the habitat will come back?

And when you've chosen who will go in your zoo, then what? You need the right kind of enclosure, with the right kind of stimulation, or the animal won't breed, and it'll go nuts. Speaking of breeding, what are the right conditions to make an animal breed? Why won't cheetahs breed in captivity? How do you keep the male clouded leopards from killing the female ones during courtship? Do female clouded leopards have the right to say no to unwanted advances, and how can you build zoo exhibits to facilitate that right, especially on a limited budget? In the wild, elephants develop their own social groups. They're highly social animals and their behavior will be off if they're isolated or kept in the wrong kind of social grouping (imagine if you were forced to live with your parents, your husband's parents, all of your ex-boyfriends and all of your husband's ex-girlfriends. How much breeding would YOU want to do?)

Croke doesn't have many answers, but asks all of these tough questions and more. She's talked to dozens of zoo directors, keepers, biologists, and curators. She examines the fates of many different species and shares enough success stories that you end the book feeling energized and optimistic, not depressed and hopeless. The book came out in 1997, just before Disney's Animal Kingdom opened, and she talked to the man who designed it. I have visited it many times, and it sounds close to the ideal that Croke described. It emphasizes conservation heavily. The attraction that I still consider the focal point is the Safari Ride. If you hit it wrong, you'll be in line for a couple of hours, but it's pretty worth it. The best thing about it is that you can ride it a hundred times and have a hundred different experiences. I saw a baby giraffe one time. Another time, a herd of bongos ran out in front of the Jeep. Our guide was totally shocked: she said they were like the ghosts of the safari ride, very rarely seen. If you look carefully, you'll see how the animals are kept in the proper areas simply through the design of the landscape. You wonder if they even know they're in captivity.

Of course, that's Disney, and they have considerably more money and land than the local zoo. I've always viewed Animal Kingdom as a positive step, though. They do an excellent job of educating the public and making connections between the public and the animal. They hammer the conservation point home pretty hard. I hope Vicki Croke writes a sequel to this book. I'd like to see what, if anything, has changed in the last ten years and if the zoo community has arrived at any answers to these impossible questions that, in a way, will determine the fate of us all.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Announcing a new feature: "Why I love him" (or her)

So, I know I haven't been back here since I totally rocked NaBloPoMo with my awesome daily posting. I've been working on a book that is interesting, but not compelling: the sort you enjoy while you're reading but won't move heaven and earth to spend time with. Then I realized that if I didn't post soon and innovate on my blog, I would've failed NaBloPoMo in the larger sense. Like the kid with the ability to memorize all the facts out of a history book but without the ability to analyze, extrapolate and make comparisons, I would've rocked the test only to fail the subject. Plus...I missed you, and missed my blog!

So, the idea behind this feature is simple. On my sidebar is a massive list of "Authors I love, guilty pleasures included." So, from time to time, I'm going to pick one and guessed it..."Why I love him (or her)".

Today, I pick V.C. Andrews. When I was in grade school, I was scared shitless of her books. I think it's because the movie version of Flowers in the Attic was marketed as a horror movie. (I finally saw it when I was in college. It's scary, all right, but not in the way the producers intended). I remember there was a girl in my math class, Melanie Tobias, who was working on If There Be Thorns (the second-to-last book in the FITA series). I used to look at her book all the time (it was more entertaining than math) and it made me feel afraid: the hints of mind control and evil possession freaked me out. I think I approached the series differently than most, though. By the time I'd gotten around to reading them, she'd gone back and written Garden of Shadows, a prequel to the series. Most prequels to anything are blatant money grabs and add little to the saga. This one actually made you empathize with someone who was portrayed thereafter as thoroughly evil and twisted. You understood what made the grandmother the way she was, and what fears and disappointments drove her. Would any reasonable person act the way she did over the course of the next two books? Probably not. But still, it lent humanity to her bizarre behavior.

After I finished the FITA series, I read the Dawn books, the Heaven books and her stand-alone novel My Sweet Audrina. They started to seem horribly derivative. Every girl had a dark secret and an evil relative (who usually knocks her up and then blames her for it). Every girl wound up a captive of some sort for a brief period of time. The girls generally started off with nothing and wound up rich through various quirks of fate, rarely through hard work and effort. There was always incest, often consensual. Blah blah blah.

I know that the V.C. Andrews books aren't particularly good. Although I re-read the FITA series from time to time, I haven't touched most of the rest since the first time I read them. So why does she have a place on my favorites list? I guess it's because of the way the books made me feel. Not only did they make me feel grown up, but they made me feel part of a community of readers. Most of the other stuff I gravitated towards, I couldn't really share with anyone except my best friend growing up. When I checked out a V.C Andrews book from the library, the library volunteer would often say "Oooohh, that's a really good one", or someone in line behind me would say "After you finish this series, you've gotta read the Dawn ones, they're even better." I knew they were trashy at the time, but they were totally absorbing. And that's "Why I Love V.C. Andrews."