The Martian: A review

So, I must admit I am apparently the only person — at least on this planet — who hasn’t seen The Martian on the big screen, but I’ve finally jumped on the bandwagon and read the book.* (A nice review of the movie by Melinda Snodgrass is here. She reviews the movie and book and includes some of George R.R. Martin’s commentary about book/movie adaptation. I’ve written some about book/movie adaptation in a review of Sideways.)

Like most readers, I loved book. It’s the kind of SF I think even Sad Puppies might enjoy, given it has space ships and white guys sciencing the shit out of stuff. It does, I suppose hearken back to classic SF — whatever that is.

But, its appeal is Mark Watney’s voice and the gallows humor Andy Weir has bestowed on Watney’s character. (It almost seems as if Weir had Matt Damon in mind as he was developing Watney’s voice. Of course, that could simply be the hazard of reading a novel when a movie is out that makes the voice sound like Damon’s. Or could it be Matt Damon lives inside my head?)

The book also serves as a really good study of keeping the tension flowing in a story, although there are moments when you want Weir to let up a little, and maybe let someone have a picnic at a peaceful beach or something.

For a non-science guy like me, the science in it is readable and I have to commend Weir on that. Given he has a science background — computer science — I’m pretty sure he knows how to science the shit out of stuff, or at least research enough to make the science sound plausible. The science even got Neil deGrasse Tyson approval, and that’s no small feat.

So, read the book. It’s good fun. And eventually, I will launch out at some point to see the movie.

— Todd


*Editor’s note: I hope you will consider buying the book through this Amazon link. While I don’t want to be too agressive of a marketer, I would also like to monetize this blog a little. Thanks for your support.



The 100th Novel: Joe R. Lansdale’s The Bottoms

At its surface Joe R. Lansdale’s novel The Bottoms shares parallels with Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird: its narrator looks back onto a southern childhood during the Depression — the setting is East Texas, rather than Alabama; the narrator is witness to the injustices of racial prejudice; the novel has an enigmatic figure like Boo Radley, known as the Goat Man; and the novel’s narrative voice is that of  precocious curious preteen Harry Crane.

When Harry and his younger sister Tom (Thomasina) discover the horribly mutilated body of a black woman in the bottom land of the Sabine River, they uncover more than a murder. They uncoil the not-so-hidden racism and racial injustice lurking in their small town, a set of beliefs and attitudes as dangerous and poisonous as the cottomouths that slither in the river. They also get caught up in hunting down the Goat Man, a half-goat, half-man rumored to lurk along the river’s banks.

Investigating the murder — which turns into an investigation of serial murder — is constable Jacob Crane, Harry and Tom’s father. Much like Atticus Finch, Jacob takes up the investigation of the multiple murders of black women to the consternation of the whites in the town, many of whom overtly try to discourage the investigation, simply because the victims are black. Jacob is harassed by the Klan; and is unable to prevent a black man — at first a suspect — from dying at the hands of a lynch mob.

Where Jacob differs from Atticus, is that Jacob is aware of his own innate racial prejudice: it’s what leads him to suspect and arrest the black man Mose, who later gets lynched, on thin circumstantial evidence. Jacob is like Atticus, who Jane Smiley notes doesn’t “have the will to break up the status quo and reimagine American life as socially, culturally, and politically as well as legally egalitarian.”

Atticus, to some extent, is always too virtuous, too stand-up of a guy, to see his fight is caught up in a failure, as Smiley notes, to question social forms. Jacob redeems himself somewhat by taking action beyond recognizing the injustices: he brutally beats the lynch mob’s leader with an axe handle, but only after a white woman turns up murdered after Mose is murdered.

The novel is an excellent portrait of the time it represents, and the voice of Harry is engaging. It reveals the innate racism that still seems to infiltrate the American mind. It’s also an wonderful portrait of a family, warts and all. Plus, it has a Goat Man (sort of).

Book Review: Iain Banks’ The Wasp Factory

The Wasp FactoryThe Wasp Factory by Iain M. Banks
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In 1991, Bret Easton Ellis’ novel American Psycho stirred-up a hornet’s nest of outrage from critics and feminists before it was published. The novel was scorned for its graphic depictions of violence, especially against women.

In the novel serial killer Patrick Bateman describes his murders in excruciating detail. He also describes his daily life in the same excruciating detail, in flat atonal first-person prose.

From brushing his teeth to eating meals, all of Bateman’s is life is ritualized, and disturbing. His frame of mind is eerily like that of Frank Cauldhame, protagonist of Iain Bank’s The Wasp Factory.

Like Bateman, Cauldhame’s life is ritualized: he’s developed a fantasy world that often involves torturing and killing animals (apparently a common trait of serial killers). Within that fantasy world is the Wasp Factory, an old clock Cauldhame uses to kill wasps in an labyrinthine torture chamber.

Like Bateman, Cauldhame, 17, has also murdered — in his case family members: one cousin with an adder, another cousin with a giant kite, and a younger brother with a bomb that had lain unexploded since World War II.

As sinister as Cauldhame is, what makes this novel palatable is the language and voice of its narrator. The flat tone of American Psycho makes it almost impossible to read without experiencing the overwhelming desire to pluck your eyes out.

Cauldhame has a voice. He’s almost pleasant to follow as he tours the reader through his darkly comic fantasy world.

You actually sort of care for Cauldhame. You want to know what happens to him and what caused his need to kill and torture.

And Banks reveals this with a twist that even Ambrose Bierce would have been envious of.

View all my reviews

The Sunday Salon: The Weird World of Harry Crews and Tricky Roaches

This past week I finished reading Harry Crews’ The Scar Lover. I haven’t made the time to write a formal review, but rereading this novel only confirmed why I like Harry Crews. He’s sort of a godfather of weirdo lit, a mix of Southern Gothic and the anarchy of The Sex Pistols.

The Scar Lover is about Pete Butcher, an ex-Marine who has just moved into a boarding house. A loner, he’s bent on escaping himself, and a strange past: Always lingering and tormenting him is the guilt he feels about accidentally disabling his younger brother, bashing him in the brain with the claws of a hammer. The action of the novel serves to lead Butcher to redeem himself and eventually become his brother’s keeper.

It’s the action of the novel that puts you into Crews’ gnarled world. At one point Butcher throws an old man into an alligator pit at a zoo — the alligators are too listless to snack. The chief action of the story involves an adventure with a pair of Rastafarians to reclaim a corpse from a funeral home, because the deceased in his will wants to be cremated via funeral pyre. 

As I say, whacky stuff. Check Crews out.

A Reverse Metamorphosis, of Sorts

Well, my craving to sink my teeth into some creative nonfiction was sidetracked by the arrival via Bookmooch of Daniel Evan Weiss’ novel The Roaches Have No King, something of a reverse Metamorphosis, in which a band of intelligent roaches observes the lives of humans and try to manipulate them in order to survive. I’m about halfway through the novel. 


Editor’s Note:

Sorry this is a day late: Lunch called and I scurried to feed my belly; the humans I live with then decided to run errands and took me with them. So no further adventures on the Web for Sunday. Anyhow, good reading to all.

The Sunday Salon: Chronological Narrative and Great Page Presentation

Richard Gilbert once again has an interesting post at his blog Narrative. This one is on the New Yorker‘s practice of editing articles so they read chronologically.

The post led me to writer Dan Baum‘s site, which is nicely put together. Very clean and accessible. It seems perfect for a freelance writer.

Reading Fiction and the Craving for Creative Nonfiction in My Reading Life

When I started my 100 novels reading project three years ago, I imagined it would take less time than it has so far. Not that I’m giving up on it. To close to the end to do that.

Anyhow, the project seems to take up a inordinate amount of  my reading time, and I’ve also been mindful of the desire to read nonfiction, as I read through thousands of words in novels.

It’s not that I haven’t read nonfiction in the past few years, but most of it has been books on writing or some form of self-help. I haven’t indulged in a favorite form — creative nonfiction, literary journalism — in some time, at least a year, and I think it’s time to take a break from novels for a while and sink my teeth into some meaty nonfiction.

I think it’s interesting to follow my mind and its reading cravings. It seems to tell me exactly what I need to read, or guides me toward a specific genre or form. Does your reading mind do this? Do you find yourself reading something and realizing this book is exactly what you wanted or needed to read?

I’m going through that, actually, at the moment on my novel list, reading Harry Crews‘s novel Scar Lover. I’ve been craving Crews’s gnarled fictive universe, something that’s part Hemingway, part Faulkner with the Sex Pistols thrown in for good measure.

100 Novels: When It Comes to Getting Sideways, the Movie Makes the Book Palatable

By Rex Pickett
St. Martin’s Griffin, 2004

Adapting a novel to the screen has to be a daunting task. If you take Spike Jonze’s brilliant, quirky and genuinely bizarre movie Adaptation as a guide, adapting any book to the screen — in this case Susan Orlean’s nonfiction book The Orchid Thief — is a harrowing, freaky ride.

Screenwriters must condense hundreds of pages into a visual experience that doesn’t exceed the limits of the human bladder. In doing so they risk alienating fans of the book, potentially ruining both book and movie for readers and audiences alike. Screenwriters either follow the book too closely, or they diverge so far from it, they create a new, and sometimes, unrecognizable creature.

At times, however, the adaptation goes so well a work of art gets created, something that equals, or succeeds the original piece. I’m thinking of the marvelous adaptations to the screen of No Country for Old Men and Brokeback Mountain.

Often, though, the adaptation falls short and you exit the theater, or switch off the DVD player, saying, “The book was waaaaaaaay better.” In the case of Rex Pickett’s novel Sideways, the movie adaptation doesn’t fall short at all; it turns out waaaaaaaay better than the novel.

Both the book and the movie tell the story of Miles and Jack, two buddies embarking on a madcap, weeklong wine tasting adventure into California’s Santa Ynez Valley — the last bachelor hurrah for Jack getting married at the end of the week. The mismatched pair — Miles, the lonesome loser; Jack, the good-times man everybody loves — fling themselves into wine, women and the emergency room, testing love and friendship along the way.

Essentially the book and movie are similar enough that readers won’t blow out head-scratching “huhs?” with the changes screenwriters adapted to the plot. Jack and Miles are recognizable, the plot itself, though reshaped significantly for better dramatic effect in some spots, is recognizable. What clicks in the movie and not in the book are the changes in plot that make the story itself much more plausible and less contrived than in Pickett’s novel.

The novel starts out well, opening with a frantic Miles trying to pack for the road trip, a scene that establishes Miles’s character and circumstances — he’s broke (a detriment to his oenophilia) and is taking an extravagant trip he can’t afford; and he’s banking on a last-ditch effort to publish a novel. The opening’s also well paced, getting the characters on the road, after a hilarious wine tasting episode not in the film, and establishing the characters’ motives — Miles wants to escape his dreary life, enjoy a lot of wine, and send his friend off with a bang, while Jack wants a bang or two, along with his quaff.

The novel falters, however, with several contrived plot points. There is, for instance, a strange and ludicrous boar hunt with local yokel Brad that seems pointless, other than to provide Jack with broken ribs — one of a series of injuries Jack will have to explain away to his fiancee — and a gun, for a later, overly-violent encounter with Jack’s betrayed girlfriend for the week, Terra.

And Pickett seems to think it’s implausible that Miles’s love interest Maya may actually be attracted to Miles. Disturbingly, Pickett has Jack pimp out Maya for no good reason, other than to alienate Miles, Jack and Maya, a brief alienation that gets tidied up all too well at the end of the novel when Miles and Maya trip merrily off into the sunset. The film, on the other hand, ends with Miles standing in the rain outside of Maya’s apartment — he’s betrayed her by lying about Jack’s marriage — leaving the audience and Miles wondering if Maya will answer the door.

The novel, however, isn’t horrible. There are insightful moments when Miles contemplates the nature of friendships and love. There are clearly well researched scenes about wine and wine tasting. And Pickett certainly depicst a hangover well. But, in the end, the movie cleans up the novel’s loose ends, and makes for a more satisfying experience, a good quaff, slightly fruity, with no bitter residue.