Sunday, July 26, 2009

Assassination Vacation, Sarah Vowell

Assassination Vacation
Sarah Vowell

With Assassination Vacation, Sarah Vowell hits 3 of 4 with me as successful volumes.

In it she describes her researches into the history of 3 presidential assassinations: Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley. It sounds macabre - and it is - but Vowell pulls it off and keeps a sense of humor about it.

She manages that by adding things to the simple dry history, things like her own opinions and musings on what those involved were saying and and thinking.

I enjoyed reading this, and I learned a few things in the process. Alas, my brain is lousy at holding on to details - I'm better at remembering emotions for some reason - so I'm afraid a lot of the actual history here won't stick with me.

Still, it's fascinating to learn that Robert Todd Lincoln - the president's son - was at or nearby during all three of the assassinations Vowell documents.

I will take a few other facts away from this, too: McKinley's assassin, Leon Czolgosz, was a depressed anarchist. Garfield's assassin, Charles Guiteau, was probably clinically insane. And Lincoln's assassin, John Wilkes Booth, actually thought he was doing good for the country.

I recommend Assassination Vacation for it's quirky humor mixed with Vowell's opinions and real history. An odd but nice blend.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Get Shorty, Elmore Leonard

Get Shorty
Elmore Leonard

This is another in my occasional series of readings that come from wanting to know how the movie differs from the book. Exactly why I want to know that isn't clear even to me, but it is the case.

Get Shorty - the book - is fun. I read it in just a few days and took it to work to read over lunch time. That was a good sign given my recent string of books I haven't been all that enamored of.

The story revolves around Chili Palmer, a movie lover and shylock who is tired of that business - for various reasons. He finds himself getting involved movies when he goes to Las Vegas and then LA to look into some loans that are past due.

There are, of course, all kinds of complications. Chili winds up dealing with some local drug dealers who are laundering their money through a B movie production company, and so on. It's well written and well paced.

For those who have seen the movie, it differs from the book in both small and medium sized ways. Example: the drug courier's father is never mentioned in the book, and never makes an appearance. Nor does the wife of the writer - Doris, played in such outrageous fashion by Bette Midler - exist in the novel.

Other semi-important changes include the fact that it isn't Harry Zimm who causes Ray Barboni to go to LA, and there isn't even a confrontation between Barboni and Zimm, so that hospital scene - "Who wants to take a crack at wiring Mr. Zimm's jaw?" - doesn't happen in the book either.

The smaller changes are too numerous to mention, and yet don't add up to anything all that important.

In all I'd have to say that the conversion to the screenplay was done with skill and attention to detail.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

The Mezzanine, Nicholson Baker

The Mezzanine
Nicholson Baker

I'm not at all sure what to make of this one.

Is it philosophy? It examines the meaning of life through the study or our simple, daily activities and thoughts, so perhaps.

Is it humor? It clearly points out some of the oddities of human nature in ways that make the reader laugh, or at least crack a smile.

Is it satire? Certainly some bits - like the long footnote about footnotes - can be thought of that way.

Is it meditation? Nothing "of the world" discussed here is particularly important, and yet, something about the presentation makes the whole something greater than the sum of its parts.

Is it some kind of high art? Well, maybe, but I'm not sure I could defend that description.

In my opinion, The Mezzanine is a novel written in the style of Jerry Seinfeld, only extended. Seinfeld's comedy has been described to me as being "about nothing", or at least about nothing important.

The Mezzanine - in which the entire plot revolves around the author's thinking over one escalator ride, with extensive diversions into things related to those thoughts - is Seinfeld's comedy on steroids.

Instead of a few lines about broken shoe laces, we get whole pages with footnotes and later references. We get an interesting discussion of the frequency of the author's thoughts about various topics, and the idea of comparing that data with similar charts for others. We get expositions on cashier efficiency and polishing the handrails of escalators. In all, it's a disordered and unrelated group of chapters, very loosely bound together by the author's occasional reference to his return from lunch.

But in the process of writing these un- (or barely) related blurbs we actually examine the way people think. There is amusement, at a minimum, in these pages as a result.

In all honesty I don't know that I learned from The Mezzanine. I already assumed that everyone had crazy thought patterns similar to my own, but different in their specifics. Still, I did enjoy it. Recommended.