Cannonball Read IV

A bunch of Pajibans reading and reviewing and honoring AlabamaPink.

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Rebecca’s #CBR4 Review #43: The Walking Dead, vol. 14-15 by Robert Kirkman et al.

Note: I somehow didn’t publish this review, so it is out of order.

The Walking Dead comic series eventually feels overly episodic; Rick and his band of survivors finds a safe place, then they lose it to violence, then they move on for awhile before they find another safe place.

In volumes 14-15, No Way Out and We Find Ourselves, the survivors are dealing with something slightly different; they have found a community where they are actually safe, but they don’t feel safe. They steal guns from them and otherwise plot to undermine the things they have agreed to, in order to ease their trauma-inspired sense that something bad will happen any second and no one can be trusted.

As it works out, something bad does happen, but the people they have found can be trusted. At this point, any reader who is not thinking that Rick is probably the one who shouldn’t be trusted is much too influenced by the fact that he is the main character to see through to his actions.

Of course, Rick realizes his mistake and repents; but how many times can that happen to one person before it becomes completely insincere?

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Rebecca’s #CBR4 Review #49: Medical Apartheid by Harriet A. Washington

Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present is a compelling and horrifying journey through the racial disparities in medical treatment from the days of slavery to now.

Of course, the Tuskegee experiments, where black men with tuberculosis were told they were receiving treatment, but were actually enrolled in a study to chart the course of TB, are well-known, but the history goes back farther, and also extends farther into the present. The invention of the speculum was part of a doctor’s experimentation on unanesthetized female slaves, performing vaginal surgery while they writhed in pain. Once these procedures were perfected, he performed them on white women who had been given ether.

In the modern day, black americans are more likely to be enrolled in studies where they have given less than informed consent, including studies where children are enrolled, and the ability of foster parents to unenroll them if they feel they are not getting better is taken away by the state; and coercive tactics used to get prisoners to enroll in medical studies.

Washington meticulously and unflinchingly documents these abuses, giving countless case studies and examples, until the evidence is overwhelming that our medical system is built on racism and apartheid.

Rebecca’s #CBR4 Review #48: Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton

Since we all know that Jurassic Park is one of the best movies ever, sometimes it’s good to take a step back and re-appraise the source material. I will try to stick to the book, not just make a laundry list of comparisons between the two.

Jurassic Park is about – and really, shame on you if you don’t know this, go watch the movie right now – an entrepreneur, John Hammond, who finds a way to clone dinosaur DNA, which involves some really ridiculous sounding science about bugs that just sucked on dinos being trapped in amber, and their blood being harvested to clone dinosaurs. Hammond runs away with this idea, growing docile herbivores but also T-rexes and raptors without really considering the ways it could spin out of control; he’s just so excited to bring dinosaurs back to life.

Most of the story takes place on the island, as a mathematician (Ian Malcolm), a paleontologist (Alan Grant), a paleobotanist (Elli Satler), and Hammond’s grandchildren get a chance to evaluate the island before it opens. Naturally, chaos ensues, lots of secondary characters get chomped, slashed, and blinded with poisonous goo, and Hammond watches his dream die before his eyes – oh, and the dinosaurs are breeding and totally not contained on the island.

The bare bones of the story is really strong – you say ‘dinosaurs’, and I’m already running to see it – and the book has a high number of action scenes (so much so that the 2nd and 3rd movies would borrow setpieces from the book that didn’t make it in), most of which are fairly successful. However, there are a lot of deus ex machina escapes. First, Grant and the kids make it by a sleeping T-rex in a tense scene involving getting a raft onto a river, only to have it wake up at the last second, chase them, be about to chow down, and then another dinosaur comes by to save our heroes. Then, one of the kids is almost eaten by the T-rex before he succumbs to a tranquilizer shot by the gameskeeper (who thought he had missed).  Malcolm is chomped on by a T-rex, but she is then distracted so he can live on to fill the pages with Chaos theory.

Oh, the chaos theory. This pops up in the movie, but just enough to make a little sense and give Malcolm something fairly intelligent sounding to say before we see more dinosaurs. But in the back, it goes on for pages, then comes back in the next section for a few pages, and while it’s not so much that it ends up taking away from the overall plot, it is enough that 1. the utter pop psychology bullshit of it all becomes apparent, and 2. it appears that Crichton is actually trying to make this the point of his novel, rather than dinosaurs chasing people and being awesome. I’ll take my ridiculous premises without the moralizing crap, please.

Still, a solid novel, and we are all forever indebted to it for the movie that it spawned.

Rebecca’s #CBR4 Review #47: Fables vol 7-8 by Bill Winningham et al.

I have written about the Fables series before (I started it earlier in the Cannonball), and while I think it continues with the same strengths as a series – interesting characters that take off from the fable/fairytale characters in sometimes surprising ways, good balance of the larger story with that of relationships between the fables – there is something that happens in volume 7, Arabian Days (and Nights).

That something is that it is pretty damn racist. It brings in the fables from the middle east, including a genie, and while bringing in these characters isn’t racist, they are basically deployed as complete caricatures of every stereotype you can think of – they oppress women, own slaves, and are physically presented in the most simplistic, unimaginative stereotypical way you could possibly think of.

Luckily, Wolves does a lot better, as Mowgli searches for Bigby, finds him for a secret mission or something, and then resolves his relationship with Snow in a wholly satisfying way. Hopefully the series can revisit the non-Western characters in a way that is not broad and offensive.

Rebecca’s #CBR4 Review #46: Mildred Pierce by James M. Cain

Mildred Pierce is a straightforward, somewhat pulpy novel about a young divorced woman in the 30’s who manages to start a thriving restaurant business during a depression – but the real story is about her relationship to her eldest daughter, Veda (described on the book jacket as ‘monstrous’), a snobby asshole who Mildred sees as refined, containing some indefinable quality that Mildred believes will lead Veda to success – and Mildred is determined to give her the things that she wants.

Cain tells the story in simple language, always explaining Mildred’s inner thoughts clearly and precisely. He spells things out explicitly, but it never seems like a flaw; it gets the story moving forward and paints a clear picture of Mildred as a character. She is determined, smart, and unsentimental; she could be an absolute success in her chosen business were it not for Veda, and for her lover Monty Beragon.

The interesting thing about the novel is that Mildred’s drive to impress Veda, her overwhelming desire not to embarrass her awful daughter by making the money that buys her food as a waitress, is what makes her actually try to do something more; but it also leads to some very poor decisions, made with Monty in mind, but still with Veda as the ultimate goal. Seriously, this mother-daughter relationship is pretty fucked up, and even when Mildred kicks her out, she can’t help but go looking for her. It takes Mildred from a tough-as-nails mother to a tragic figure, and that is what makes the novel truly memorable.

Jordan Bravado’s #CBR4 Review #7: Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson

“Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson”

I got this biography for Christmas, right after the death of Steve Jobs. He had granted life access to Walter Isaacson and gave him many candid interviews and insight into the life and times of the Apple co-creater.

Steve was a very interesting fellow. He was bossy, insistent, loud, occasionally obnoxious and a hard person to work for/with. But most geniuses are, if not all of them. A portrait of a man born with very unique ideas and takes on philosophies, Isaacason captures Jobs as more of an asshole than anything else, and how everybody loved him despite his negative influences.

It details his impressive history with circuitry, drugs, religion and his disconnected family. Isaacson talks with old girlfriends, wives and kids, and really tries to get as much dirt about Steve as the book can handle, but it doesn’t even come across as personal. He knows so much about the man he’s writing, but the book is cold and distant. He’s keeping himself out of the loop completely, which helps create an odd atmosphere I didn’t quite enjoy. It was “fly-on-the-wall”, or an invitation to a social group that I didn’t belong to.

The point of the book is seemingly nothing. It’s just for those who really care about Steve’s story, and unfortunately it’s told from someone who seemed to think it tedious. And it’s dryer than an 80-year old vagina.

Jordan Bravado’s #CBR4 Review #6: The Lincoln Lawyer by Michael Connolly

“The Lincoln Lawyer by Michael Connelly”

Mickey Haller, a veritable phenom of a defence attorney, leads a busy life. So busy that any place he lives remains empty, as he works constantly inside one of his Lincoln Town Cars. He’s not above manipulating the law to get his way, because with thousands of dollars at stake with every high-profile case, he needs to make his ends meet.

Luckily, one high-profile case comes to him in the form of Louis Roulet, a bored, rich kid with an arrest for an assault. He knows he can squeeze every ounce of money from this seemingly easy, but Louis Roulet, his new client is a different form of evil. As Mickey unravels secrets around Roulet, he discovers a dangerous connection between the two that can ultimately destroy both himself and the case.

The book moves at a great pace, and is the ultimate summer page-turner. Each character has tons of personality, and even the courtroom scenes, which are usually depicted as cold and dry, are slightly jubilant. As dark and scary as things get, there’s always something good to look forward to.

Connolly has written a great novel, full of action and surprises, legalese and personality. It’s a great mystery, a wonderful thriller, and a brilliant piece of modern literature for those who like a lighter vocabulary in their novels.

Jordan Bravado’s #CBR3 Review #5: Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton

“Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton”

Pushing thirty is not necessarily the best age to be watching Jurassic Park for the first time. I did so this year, after reading Michael Crichton’s novel of the same name. How little often I can say this, but I enjoyed the movie more, but I’m glad I read the book first. I knew what to expect, in a way.

Jurassic Park is a fantastic and clever idea from Michael Crichton, who’s famous for his creative mind. The story is stocked with full, rich characters and locations, all intricately detailed and looked over with a fine-toothed comb. Crichton’s at his best when the obvious happens and his characters who are all well-informed of the consequences, become trapped and have to fight their way through.

Crichton, however, is also a scientific master and that always seems to translate poorly into action-adventure literature. The annoying Professor Ian Malcom who tells the rest of the characters of the consequences of a park full of dinosaur clones, treats them like their idiots. Crichton does the same to it’s readers. All he needs to do is explain a little Chaos Theory in one or two pages, and we’re all good to go. Instead, he has one character spewing scientific drivel from his mouth for pages on end without helping the plot move along. We know the dinosaurs are getting out and that’s the reason we’re reading it in the first place. Tone down the science and I’m perfectly fine.

But tone it down, he did not. Luckily, for the sake of the story, the characters are fantastic. There’s a really great connection with most of them. Dr. Alan Grant is a grizzled leader and protector with such incredible gumption that he’s totally likeable in every way. The kids aren’t annoying, the female roles are fleshed out, and even the annoying characters get their comeuppance.

So, if you don’t mind a little science in your word-diet, than Jurassic Park is a fantastic choice, especially if you know the story already. If you’re like me, and just can’t read dry text of explanations that seem obvious to a smart reader, then you may not enjoy this book as much.

Rebecca’s #CBR4 Review #45: The Mourner’s Dance by Katherine Ashenburg

Death and mourning are experiences that are consistent across cultures; they happen to everyone, regardless of geography, ethnicity, class, and any other variation in experience you can imagine. While there are practices that are remarkably similar across cultures, there are also huge differences – some cultures wear white to indicate mourning, some black; some cultures use raucous wild parties to celebrate the dead, others find only solemn contemplation acceptable. The Mourner’s Dance: What We Do When People Die explores the traditions across history and finds a great deal of similarities, if not in practice, then in sentiment, of mourning practices.

One of the interesting things that Ashenburg documents is the use of mourning clothing, now in disfavor; we may look at mourning clothes as a ridiculous requirement of mourning, and perhaps it was, when widows and other close family members were required to were crepe, a rough and irritating material. But Ashenburg talks to those who long for the external marking of mourning that certain items of clothing used to indicate, so they can avoid being told by strangers to smile when they are experiencing deep pain.

Ashenburg grounds her book in the experience of her daughter, Hannah, who lost her fiance unexpectedly in her twenties. She compares Hannah’s experience to traditional methods of mourning than our less regimented modern Western society. Hannah gathered her friends close, shunning contact with others, as many mourners were given to do in centuries past; she switched her engagement ring from hand to hand on the date of their scheduled wedding, indicating a remembrance of their future wedding, echoing in sentiment the practice of holding a funeral with the deceased’s fiance in wedding dress; and Hannah would weekly gather to look at photo albums of her fiance, much as mourners would engage in rituals prescribed by society for a set amount of time. Hannah found these things intuitively, without the expectations of society to guide her.

As with another Cannonball book of Ashenburg’s, The Dirt on Clean, The Mourner’s Dance is meticulously researched and written, fascinating in its detail. It reflects an aspect of life that many may find boring, or at least less than scintillating. If you find the topic all interesting, the book will not disappoint.

Jordan Bravado’s #CBR4 Review #4: The Malice Box by Martin Langfeld

“The Malice Box by Martin Langfeld”

The book I spent the most time with this year was The Malice Box. It was enjoyable at times, and while I felt was disconnected in many ways, I kept plodding through this large piece of fiction.

It stars Robert Reckliss, a middle-aged journalist living in New York (where have you ever read that before), having marital difficulties with his wife, Katherine. A puzzle box is delivered to them and, well, nothing happens about it for a while. This is the titular Malice Box, a supernatural ornament forged with red gold and dangerous alchemy. They assume it’s a game from their friend Adam, who matched the two of them up years ago.

We get a lot of the “years ago” stories, which revolve around Sir Isaac Newton’s untold experiments. These hidden papers could be real, and could also be the key to the destruction of the Western civilization.

After a long introduction, which almost had me stop reading altogether, we begin an adventure. Robert boldly accepts a mission to save Manhattan from a deadly “soul-bomb” and his friend Adam from the clutches of those who plan to detonate it. The plot sounds like it’s from Japanese anime program, but it’s unfortunately too rooted in reality to use it’s supernatural connection effectively.

The book unfolds a mythology based in the beginnings of time about a unicorn and a minotaur fighting throughout the ages. The cartoonish idea is put off by a very detailed tour through Manhattan and it’s surrounding areas. Langfield becomes distracted by how beautiful he perceives his locations. Unfortunately, the puzzles that drive the plot forward become secondary to the architecture in New York.

We meet a spirited elderly gentleman, Horace, who guides Robert along his path, which offers him plenty of time for eating, sleeping, sex, and blogging. Seriously, he’s got to blog about the day-to-day thoughts he has on his experiences.

But self-discovery is a central theme to the book. The path that Robert is being guided through is an important process of learning his mistakes and fixing them slowly, but surely over the course of well-timed problems. The forced nature of the plot leads to a quickened pace, but is held back due to all the time it seems Robert has to go through it, despite actually only having a week.

His kidnapped friend Adam seems to play both sides, while resisting those who captured him at some moments, and utterly terrorizing Robert in others. We’re not sure what side Adam is playing, if he’s even conscious of it, and it really helps maintain the human connection. Katherine’s mysterious past also comes into play in many ways.

It’s up to Robert to make sense of it all and search for hidden clues around Manhattan. Each puzzle corresponds to a natural or spiritual element of life, and with each correct examination of the experience, Robert transforms himself into something stronger and more able to stop the detonation.

If this were the “popcorn-movie” book it’s made out to be, I’d be biting down on kernels and cold, stale puffs of corn. But damn it if I wouldn’t finish the bag. And at the end of it, I was glad I ate, but I was still hungry for something a little more filling. The Malice Box was creative with it’s location and mythology, but ultimately gets too caught up with what it knows to give way to it’s incredible lack of fun.

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