Monday, January 31, 2011

The Elephant to Hollywood by Michael Caine

The Elephant to Hollywood by Michael Caine, 2010

Everyone who ever appeared on a TV screen is writing a book these days. Third-rate memoirs from minor celebrities or two-bit reality stars are becoming increasingly common, overloading the genre with junk, obscuring the few celebrities who might actually have something to say.

Enter Michael Caine, Oscar-winning movie star, and one of my own favorite actors. I've always thought that Caine was a terrific screen presence and a fascinating personality, so I was eager to read the story of his long career in show business.

And it's quite a story. Caine, who grew up in a working-class suburb, has seen everything, been everywhere and met quite literally everyone. His stories are sometimes funny, sometimes touching, always well-told. He has anecdotes about John Wayne, Jack Nicholson, Roger Moore, Nicole Kidman, Laurence Olivier, Scarlett Johanson, John Lennon, Shirley MacLaine, Sean Connery, Bob Hope and just about everyone in between.

Caine is more of a storyteller than a writer, but his style is glossy, readable and informally conversational. He's honest and forthright, but refreshingly positive about almost everything. He's clearly not interested in sharing juicy gossip and tearing down squeaky-clean public images.

There are some great stories in the book, especially during the early chapters. Caine's childhood and the beginning of his acting career are particularly colorful and interesting. He crisply captures the struggle of trying to make it in a profession that many of his family members didn't take seriously. He recounts one early meeting with a casting director that didn't go well:

No Alwyn Fox meant no job for me, so I headed back to Solosy's to pick up another copy of The Stage. My time at Horsham meant that I had left the Assistant Stage Manager category behind and could now (with a certain amount of artistic license) call myself an "experienced juvenile." Unfortunately, my artistic license extended a bit too far and I added the part of "George" from George and Margaret, a popular play that would have been the next production at Horsham, to my list of parts. When I got to one audition, in a theater in the east-coast town of Lowestoft, I was taken aback to find the seventy-year-old director seemed a bit hostile. "It says here, you played George in George and Margaret!" he said. Something was clearly not right. "Well, I did," I retorted, determined to stick to the story. "Well, you're a bloody liar!" he roared. "You've never even seen the play-- or you'd know that the cast spends two hours waiting for George and Margaret to turn up and they never do!"---(page 36)

Caine's writing is confident and straightforward, if not technically perfect (he has a tendency to get snarled in overlong sentences). It's certainly a notch above your average celebrity tell-all, though.

Considering the sheer number of stars that Caine knows, the temptation to name-drop must have been strong. Thankfully, he mostly refrains from it. He also never sounds pompous or self-important; his humility is one of the book's many charms. Though his stories are colorful and sometimes a little racy, it's all in good fun and you never get the impression that Caine just wants to pat himself on the back.

By and large, Caine avoids personal details, instead focusing on Hollywood stories and film anecdotes. He does tell the incredibly romantic story of how he met his wife and shares the experience of finding out he had a half-brother late in life. His writing has strong emotion in these segments and it's wonderful to hear him lovingly describe his daughters and grandchildren.

The book moves briskly between entertaining bits (Caine mercifully spares the reader the saggy sections that most memoirs contain) despite a couple of slightly leaden chapters on the history of Hollywood. Caine is at his best when sharing stories about his experiences and career. Alfie, The Italian Job, Harry Brown, Batman Begins and Zulu all get attention, as do some of his lesser-known films. His has been a rich, varied career and it's fun to hear him give his opinion on it.

All in all, reading the book is like a long lunch with a highly interesting and animated friend. There's nothing very gripping or life-changing being discussed, but it's an extremely entertaining read and it gives a glimpse both into the glamorous world of Hollywood and the life of an intelligent, kind, witty man who will hopefully be around to entertain us for many more years on the silver screen.

NEXT UP: Probably The Brothers Karamazov. Possibly Diana Gabaldon's Lord John and the Private Matter. We'll see.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin

A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin, 1996

Um, wow. Is it too early to call A Game of Thrones my favorite book of 2011?

Seriously. This book absolutely knocked my socks off, in the best possible way. It's the kind of "knocked your socks off" that makes me want to tear into the sequel right here, right now, because I'm not sure how long I can stand being away from Martin's characters and fictional world.

The novel (the first in a multi-book series) takes place in a fictional world that basically recalls England during the Middle Ages. It follows the Stark family as they navigate a dangerous world of politics, murder and war. A long winter is coming and supernatural forces are rallying in the north, even as an epic struggle for the throne begins, with the fragmented Stark family trapped in the middle.

Obviously, this is a gross oversimplification of an enormous story with many interlocking viewpoints, a huge mythology and incredibly complex character motivations. In other words, it's the kind of thing that could be a leaden bore in the wrong hands.

It is not a bore. Game is absolutely dynamic. Even though it is 800 pages long, there is not one chapter or subplot that is simply filler. Martin skips the boring parts and gets into the meat of the story every time. He can make a conversation between old friends as tension-filled as a battle scene. His politics are completely thrilling; it's incredibly fun trying to guess what everyone's agenda is.

Not that it's easy to do. I consider myself difficult to fool, but again and again Martin would completely blindside me with atom-bomb revelations. Some of them are difficult to see coming just because they're so audaciously nasty. The man never flinches from brutality and he makes no apologies for it. His is a world with real consequences, where people can and will die. One huge death late in the book is about as shocking and horrific a fictional demise as any I've ever read.

But there's a huge upside to all of the gloom and gore: it makes the rare scenes of love or tenderness feel earned, both by the reader and the characters.

And the characters. Oh good God, the characters. Have I ever fallen for a fictional person as quickly as I did for Tyrion Lannister? Is there anyone out there who doesn't love Arya Stark or Jon Snow? And how is it that every scene with Littlefinger or Jaime Lannister or Cersei leaves me salivating for more?

Martin clearly has a thing against one-dimensional characters. Every single person in the book--and it's a huge cast--is multi-faceted and strikingly real. People you thought were villains turn out to be heroes and the people you thought were heroes turn out to be as cruel and spiteful as everyone else. Again, this makes those moments of nobility or heroism precious and special.

Seriously, there are some truly twisted sequences in this novel. Scenes like Dany and Drogo's wedding night should be gruesome and cringe-inducing, but instead it's gentle and kind of sweet. On the other hand, Sansa and Joffrey's wholesome romance is nauseating. Martin is a master at using our own assumptions and preconceived ideas against us.

I also love Martin's treatment of the supernatural. In most fantasy universes, magic is right up there, front and center. In Martin's world, spells, monsters and magic stay on the sidelines, present but subtle. When something otherworldly comes on stage, we've had time to look forward to it, and Martin doesn't disappoint. Some of the most effective scenes in the book are supernatural in nature:

Royce's body lay facedown in the snow, one arm outflung. The thick sable cloak had been slashed in a dozen places. Lying dead like that, you saw how young he was. A boy.

He found what was left of the sword a few feet away, the end splintered and twisted like a tree struck by lightning. Will knelt, looked around warily, and snatched it up. The broken sword would be his proof. Gared would know what to make of it, and if not him, then surely that old bear Mormont or Maester Aemon. Would Gared still be waiting with the horses? He had to hurry.

Will rose. Ser Waymar Royce stood over him.

His fine clothes were a tatter, his face a ruin. A shard from his sword transfixed the blind white pupil of his left eye.

The right eye was open. The pupil burned blue. It saw.

The broken sword fell from nerveless fingers. Will closed his eyes to pray. Long, elegant hands brushed his cheek, then tightened around his throat. They were gloved in the finest moleskin and sticky with blood, yet the touch was icy cold.
--- (pages 10-11)

Martin's writing is clean and gloriously crisp. He never falls prey to the bloated exposition or over-description of other fantasy writers (sorry, Robert Jordan). His dialogue is convincingly archaic, but incredibly readable. I love that his emphasis is always on the characters, not on getting us to the next battle scene (although the battle scenes are amazing).

You know that you loved a novel when you have to wrack your brains to come up with anything negative to say about it. I pretty much adored it all-- the characters, the intricate storytelling, the unique structure, the pedal-to-the-metal pacing.

My biggest problem is that Martin sets up the sequel so exquisitely. We're left with six or seven delicious cliffhangers and a war raging. It's a testament to the novel's excellence that it feels absolutely packed with incident, yet the series' true conflict is only just beginning.

Thanks a lot, George. You've probably spoiled my next few reading experiences because I'll be pining after A Clash of Kings the whole time. There aren't a lot of authors who could spin a story as entirely bewitching as A Game of Thrones. The novel pushes all the buttons. It is tremendously exciting, as finely-plotted as a mystery, as poignant a human drama as any. It's even highly funny, usually courtesy of Tyrion or Littlefinger. It's a complete package and it's only the first one in the series, for God's sake.

I can't wait for Round Two. But if Tyrion gets killed, I'm coming after George R. R. Martin.

NEXT UP: The very first nonfiction book that I'll review on this blog: Michael Caine's new memoir The Elephant to Hollywood.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Artemis Fowl: The Atlantis Complex by Eoin Colfer

Artemis Fowl: The Atlantis Complex by Eoin Colfer, 2010

Yes, I know the Artemis Fowl series isn't exactly heady, mind-bending science fiction. And yes, I know it's technically a series for kids. But I've found the Artemis books highly entertaining over the years. They're an appealing mixture of smart-ass humor, nonstop action and fun characters. Eoin Colfer will never be on the level of, say, J.K. Rowling or Jonathan Stroud, but he's created an entertaining series.

It's also a series that's been off its game for a few volumes now. 2008's The Time Paradox was sub par at best, while 2006's The Lost Colony was only so-so. Part of the problem is that the plots and devices are getting increasingly stale and part of it is that Colfer has not really allowed the characters to grow much outside of their respective roles in the story.

So, for me, The Atlantis Complex really needed to revive the series and prove that it still has some juice left. I can say that it was definitely an improvement on Paradox, as well as being a fast, fun read. What it didn't do was solve any of the series' long-lasting problems.

As one would guess, the series revolves around Artemis Fowl, a brilliant teenaged ex-criminal mastermind who, at the tender age of twelve, discovered the existence of a high-tech race of fairies, who keep themselves hidden from humans. Although initially enemies, Artemis eventually joins forces with the fairies in order to combat various evildoers and fiendish plots.

In Complex, Artemis arranges a meeting with the fairies in order to discuss a new technology he's created. Unfortunately, the meeting is cut short when a space probe plummets to earth, putting the fairy city of Atlantis at risk, which is only the beginning of an old adversary's attack on the fairy world. To top it off, Artemis is suffering from a magical disease that causes obsessiveness, paranoia and and the emergence of a second personality.

In short, all the trappings are there for the average Artemis adventure. All of the main characters are back (feisty Captain Holly Short, unstoppable bodyguard Butler, wisecracking techie centaur Foaly and flatulent burglar dwarf Mulch Diggums) and all of the old tropes firmly in place.

This works both to the novel's advantage and to its detriment. The familiarity of the plotting, characterization and semi-lame banter is comfortingly entertaining, but it also makes for a fairly predictable, straightforward read. The main story doesn't really twist or turn, and the villain is unmemorable.

Ironically, the "fresher" parts of the book are also some of the weak parts. Artemis's split personality is mildly amusing at first, but gets old quickly, especially because we're deprived from seeing Artemis in action for most of the novel.

Despite the fact that he isn't a terrific stylist (there's a few noticeably awkward sentences in Paradox), Colfer has a good sense of humor and his wit and sarcasm have always been a highlight of the series:

"I do not intend to ask you for your daughter's hand in marriage, Mr. Adamsson, so I think we can skip over any icebreakers you may feel obliged to offer. Is everything ready?"

Adam Adamsson's pre-prepared icebreakers melted in his throat, and he nodded half a dozen times.

"All ready. Your crate is around the back. I have supplied a vegetarian buffet and goody bags from the Blue Lagoon Spa. A few seats have been laid out too, as bluntly requested in your terse e-mail. None of your party turned up, though--nobody but you-- after all my labors."

Artemis lifted an aluminum briefcase from the Ski-Doo's luggage box. "Don't you worry about that, Mr. Adamsson. Why don't you head back to Reykjavik and spend some of that extortionate fee you charged me for a couple of hours' usage of your frankly third-rate restaurant and perhaps find a friendless tree stump to listen to your woes?"
--- (pages 9-10)

Overall, Complex was a good time, an entertaining, breezy (literally) novel that still never manages to escape the good-not-great box that the Fowl series currently resides in. The character interaction and the plotting feels a little tired and staid, signs of age for the seven-book cycle. Colfer claims that the next entry is the series' last-- which he's said about every book since the third. If it truly is, I hope he manages to craft a fitting end. Artemis, Holly, Butler, Mulch and Foaly deserve it.

And, yeah, I know it's a kids' book. Sue me.

NEXT UP: George R. R. Martin's A Game of Thrones. 'Cos the Wheel of Time series just isn't enough for me.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

The Help by Kathryn Stockett, 2009

It's a heartening thing that a novel like The Help has become a runaway blockbuster. Today's publishing world is a rather sad place, where James Patterson mysteries and Danielle Steele romances rule the roost. The Help is un-schmaltzy and it resolutely refuses to pander; it's not the kind of book that generally strikes a chord with a wide audience. Thankfully, it has, and Kathryn Stockett absolutely deserves her success. She's written a wonderful book.

The Help takes place in Jackson, Mississippi, during the birth of the civil rights movement. Jackson is a repressed, insular place, riddled with invisible social lines between black and white, employers and their help. Skeeter Phelan, an opinionated young woman fresh out of college, wants to change things. Aibileen, an elderly black maid, wants to finally tell all the stories she's gathered over a lifetime of serving white people. Together with a third maid named Minny, Skeeter and Aibileen join together to write a book, a book that will blow Jackson's secrets wide open.

Stockett tells her story from the perspective of all three main characters, each getting to tell her part. Minny and Aibileen's sections are written in dialect, a choice that was controversial for some reviewers. I personally found the narration to be convincingly written and in good taste. Stockett is nothing if not bold.

The novel's greatest strength lies in its three main characters. Many authors struggle to create just one memorable, iconic character; Stockett creates three.

Skeeter, the young white woman at the center of the story, is the de facto protagonist. I have a feeling Skeeter may join Huck Finn and Scout Finch in the annals of Southern literature. She emerges as an entirely lovable, well-rounded character. Stockett is not afraid to make hard for her, either. By the end of the novel, Skeeter has lost all of her friends, her boyfriend and most of the important relationships in her life, yet she remains optimistic for the future.

Although somewhat flatter than the other two (and less actively involved in the plot), I charge any reader not to love Aibileen. She is undoubtedly the soul of the book, the voice of wisdom and reason both to the reader and to the other characters.

But I think Minny is truly Stockett's biggest achievement. This woman should be unlikable: she's temperamental, brash, blunt and unforgiving, yet she emerges as the novel's antihero who slowly reveals herself as a kind, courageous person. Her relationship with her naive young employer is one of the book's finest subplots, alternately funny and touching.

It is this mixture of humor (often dark humor) and poignancy that Stockett has perfected. Her style is smooth, eminently readable and fully-formed. There's no evidence that this is her first novel:

Mother pulls the pad of paper from under the covers, tucked in the invisible pocket she's had sewn in every garment, where she keeps antivomiting pills, tissues. Tiny dictatorial lists. Even though she is so weak, I'm surprised by the steadiness of her hand as she writes on the "Do Not Wear" list: "Gray, shapeless, mannishly tailored pants." She smiles, satisfied.

It sounds macabre, but when Mother realized that after she's dead, she won't be able to tell me what to wear anymore, she came up with this ingenious postmortem system. She's assuming I'll never go buy new, unsatisfactory clothes on my own. She's probably right.
---(page 374)

Few writers could tackle a subject like the civil rights movement of the '60s with the grace and fairness that Stockett does. She does an excellent job of portraying the culture in all its complexity, letting us see everyone's perspective. She masterfully shows that the racism of the period was deeply ingrained in everyone-- black and white. She also restrains herself from getting overly syrupy when it comes to the barriers broken down by Skeeter, Aibileen and Minny. The novel doesn't end with all the residents of Jackson accepting each other.

I have a few small problems with the book. Stockett does have a tendency towards spelling things out, particularly thematic elements. A little subtlety might have been nice. There's also one notably poor characterization in a book full of excellent ones: Hilly Holbrook, Skeeter's nasty best friend and the book's antagonist, who is too irredeemably, cartoonishly evil. These are small issues, though, that rarely detract from the novel.

Overall, The Help is a fabulous novel, a well-paced, emotional human drama set against a time of historic cultural change. This is one to set on the shelf next to The Secret Life of Bees (2002) and To Kill a Mockingbird (1960). I wouldn't be surprised if Kathryn Stockett ends up as this generation's Harper Lee.

NEXT UP: Artemis Fowl: The Atlantis Complex, by Eoin Colfer. Yeah, I know it's a kid's book. I can't read a kid's book every now and then?