Monday, November 13, 2017

A Man Called Ove

Photo: the paperback's cover, from its Goodreads page

Outstanding book, alternately funny and sad, wise and silly, that became a huge bestseller around the world via word-of-mouth--a true rarity. The author, a Swede living in Stockholm, hadn't had a bestseller before, but the grapevine took off with this one, and rightly so. You should read it.

Ove is an older man who loses his wife and his job in six months. Like most of us, especially as we get older, his life revolves around those two things, and with them both gone, he's got nothing. Or so he thinks. He spends a great deal of time not living, both before he met his wife and after she died, and this book is a good warning to not live that way. Your life is what you make of it, so you'd better make something of it.

The book is never preachy, but it seems very true. Things turn out pretty well, and almost everyone in it is like the Abominable--good people inside who just need someone to flesh it out. It's a little too nice and neat at the end, but that's the kind of pleasant book it is, and you'll be okay with that, even if you're not normally, in books and in daily life. I'm sure as hell not, and it worked really well for me.

Also true to know is that Ove is an older guy who is the definition of a curmudgeon. I've often been called a little grumpy myself, and the thing to know, this book says, is that such people a) have reasons for being that way, all sad and unbelievable, and b) that's not all who and what they are.

What is also good and rare about Ove is that he is no talk and all action (Stupid is as stupid DOES), and that he has a set standard of morals and life lessons he lives by that seem strict and unbending only to those who don't have them and who don't understand those who do. I speak from experience here. But he is a very strong and steadfast guy, of a high moral compass, even if he does come across as just a tick easier to deal with than Jack Nicholson in As Good As It Gets. But where Melvin Udall (the character name just came to me) has a clinical obsessive-compulsive diagnosis (which Ove may also share), Ove has a life of hard knocks and solitary strength that has led him to become this man. 

Seeing him learn to live life again, and yet stay true to his own character, is a helluva ride that you'll want to take. And you won't forget that you took it. I recommend this book very, very much.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

2017 Comic Con: John Cusack

I spent all day Saturday in Providence, RI at the 2017 Comic Con. I took TONS of pics and spent a couple mortgage payments there. Lots of pics to come in the following days.

First one up: John Cusack as Lloyd Dobler in Say Anything. When I was at the signing table, h
e smirked in a grumpy way when he used the wrong pen, instead of my blue sharpie, and his assistant said he'd sign a different picture in my blue sharpie, which he did. And then he kept the sharpie! I'm glad I got his autograph, but he lived up to his curmudgeon reputation. But it was poetic. Just as Ione Sky gave him a pen in Say Anything, so did I at Comic Con.

Pedro by Pedro Martinez and Michael Silverman

Photo: the hardcover, from its Goodreads page

Better-written than usual for this type of book, Pedro nonetheless continues a string of multi-millionaires complaining of lack of respect and then throwing their teammates and colleagues under the bus. Mike Napoli, for example, may wake up one morning, read a page of this, and wonder WTF?

It is well-written and it has a better narrative flow than is usual for the genre. Michael Silverman has created a structure of Pedro's voice, narrative voice (certainly not Pedro's), author voice (same) and then enmeshes direct quotes from others, like you're reading a screenplay of a documentary. It doesn't sound like it works (and, sporadically, it doesn't), but overall it does work and you read on.

You get the childhood background, but without the grittiness that you think the self-proclaimed poverty would demand. It's smoothed over when maybe it shouldn't have been, but then this isn't really a documentary, it just sounds like one. You get the beginning, with the Dodgers, then the other teams: the Expos, the Red Sox, the Mets and the Phillies. (Did you remember that Pedro's last start was in the 2009 World Series against the Yanks? I did, but it seemed surreal, then and now.) You get the typical beef about the management: the Dodgers and Sox especially.

And this is the first of two things that made me rate this a three rather than a four: it's hypocritical about two things, so glaring you wonder they weren't amended. The first: Every Sox fan knows Pedro's last game was Game 4 of the 2004 World Series. Immediately he let it be known that he wanted a 3-4 year contract, and the Sox wanted to give him the shortest one possible, a year, or two, at most. That was known before the season ended and for as long as it took for him to get a guaranteed 3-4 year deal with the Mets. And it was also known that his shoulder and arm were frayed. More time on the DL; more injuries; more babying at the end...All of this was known. And it was just as well-known that the Sox were right: Pedro had one good year left for the Mets, and then the rest of that contract he mostly spent on the DL. If the Sox had given him a 3-4 year deal, they were going to eat 2-3 years of it. They said that out loud, and they were right. If you were Sox ownership, do you make that deal? The Mets did, as they candidly said, because they had a newer ballpark and the fan base was dwindling, and they had to bring in a name.

The hypocritical part is that this book whines about a lack of respect from the Sox about all this--and then shows in following chapters that they were right! He acknowledges he lasted just one more good season (a very good 2005) and then had one injury after another. The 2009 season with Philadelphia was a half-season for him--he was 5-1 and basically started in September. The rest of the year he was the same place as the previous three--on and off (mostly on) the DL. He narrates all this without saying the Sox were right, but clearly shows in his narration that the Sox were right. He calls it a lack of respect that the Sox weren't willing to give him a long guaranteed contract and then eat 75%-80% of it. But of course that's not what businesses do. And the casual fan could see his physical regression in 2003 and 2004. It was obvious. I wouldn't have given him that contract, either. (He's made hundreds of millions from baseball and endorsements, so don't feel bad for him.)

The other blatant example of hypocrisy is how he states all book long that he was misunderstood, that he was mislabeled, that he didn't throw at batters intentionally, that he wasn't a headhunter--and then, often in the same sentence or paragraph, admits that he hit someone on purpose, and that he often told the player he would do so, and then does it. He threatened players verbally with it all the time, then hit the player--and then says he's misunderstood, that he's not a headhunter. This is so obvious in the book that you shake your head.

But, again, that's what these books do, right? They complain about money, about disrespect, about how the media screws them, all that same stuff all the time. It makes you yearn for another Ball Four, and to truly appreciate how direct and honest it was. Say what you want about Bouton, but he was well aware of how not a God he was, about how lucky he was to do what he did and to make the money he did, and he had actual thoughts to say, and didn't complain too much about management or anything else. Yes, he was traded for Dooley Womack, but he never says he shouldn't have been.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

The Painted Bird by Jerzy Kosinski

Photo: hardcover from the book's Goodreads page

Oh. My. God.

There's really no other way to review it. What can you say? It's impossible for one little boy to have been through all this and to survive this, so I'm compelled to agree with the consensus that this is not autobiography, not even biography, and Kosinski was indeed a fraud for saying so.

But like most of James Frey's A Million Little Pieces, so much of this could be true, especially (again like Frey's book) in character composite, that it feels true, rings true, and--understood as allegory--certainly reads true. No little boy could possibly be beaten this many times, so savagely, or have seen so much brutality and savagery, so many murders and rapes by every type of person...No little boy can live the life of a Hieronymous Bosch painting and survive it, physically or mentally.

And yet people did. As a mirror to the Holocaust, this rings remarkably and horrifyingly true. And people survived this brutal murder-and-rape life in the Middle Ages, too--Reading this was like reading Barbara Tuchman's A Distant Mirror, picked up and plopped into Eastern Europe, 1939-1945. Really, that's a good comparison: a lot of Bosch, a lot of the Holocaust and a lot of the brutal Middle Ages, all stirred together.

It doesn't matter to me who wrote this--and it's pretty clear, I guess, that Kosinski didn't. If he did, he wrote it in Polish and it was translated. It doesn't matter. It exists, and the writing is staggeringly uniform. There are maybe twelve lines of dialogue in all its pages. The sentences are simple and detached, with a smattering of social observance thrown in, especially when detailing the trains bringing the Holocaust's victims to the camps. Someone wrote it, and it's important that someone did. This is a book that serious readers should read--and don't feel guilty if you can't make your way through it all. It is brutal. But has someone lived like this? Yes. A great many, sadly. And a great many animals have lived like this, too.

It is as brutal a look at humanity as you will likely see. And it is not untrue in of itself, even if it was for Kosinski personally. It is unflinching and unsparing. It will make you grateful for your days, for your loved ones, for life itself. You will maybe be more empathetic. This book, like all great literature, could change your outlook of the world, of people. It may, it may not, but it could, and that's rare in literature, in movies, in any segment of real life. For this it should be read and reveled.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Odd Thomas by Dean Koontz

Photo: paperback book cover, from its Goodreads page

I haven't read a Dean Koontz book since the 90s, when he wrote about gov't conspiracy crap. Dan Simmons' Flashback reminded me of that stuff, and Flashback was every bit as crappy. I mean, really bad. A shame, because Koontz in the 80s was almost as good as Stephen King, and sometimes better. Koontz's A Bad Place, Phantoms and Whispers, among a couple others, were really good then, and hold up very well now. So it was with some trepidation that I started Odd Thomas; but I did so because it got some really good reviews, because I'd heard good word of mouth, and because I'd seen it at a lot of yard sales, which is a good thing--because it means that people bought it to begin with, rather than just renting it from a library.

I'm happy to report that Odd Thomas is mostly very good. The narrator is likeable, though perhaps a little too much so, but whatever. The supporting characters are well-drawn and pleasant to deal with. His small town is well-wrought. And of course you love his flame, who Koontz fates with writerly tricks, in a kind of double-twist at the end. He knows you like her; he knows you want her to do well; he knows you expect that she won't; he knows you'll appreciate it when she seems okay. And then...

I knew it was a series, of course. And, knowing that, I see where Koontz also realizes it's a series, especially towards the end when one of the lovely nurses practically throws herself at him. That's when you know the fate of someone else, too. But it's all very good, if not over-the-top at times (especially with an Elvis who can't stop sobbing hysterically), and overall the book deserves the positive responses it's gotten. I don't know if I'm going to read any of the others in the series, but I guess I will if I run into one at a library or a yard sale, or something. I should mention that I'm a little concerned about Koontz's prodigious output, which makes King seem under-published by comparison. Does he write every word of a book that has his name on it? I don't know. I think he does here, but overall I don't know. The tone and patterns of this book do not match those of the ones I read of his in the 90s, which is a good thing. He could've changed, of course, but writers usually don't. He does still go on and on a little too much. I skimmed a few pages in this one; otherwise it would have gotten five stars. I didn't skim pages that were badly written, though; they just seemed superfluous. He goes on, for example, about a spider in the desert, for about 4-5 pages. The spider never does anything to him, nor he to I skimmed some pages, but that didn't hurt the quality of the book overall.

You'll like the characters and you'll feel for them, and the overall suspense is gripping. You may wonder, as I did, how three psychopaths could all function unnoticed in a small desert town. From what I know about them, they can't hide too well for too long, especially in a sparse population, without people whispering, or their behavior being noticed. And at high profile, highly public jobs? But that, oddly, didn't detract, either, so that's good. I guess this book works despite a few things, but it works nonetheless, and is therefore highly recommended. I read it all in one day, which also speaks well for it.