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Thursday, August 25, 2005

The Casual Critic — Pat Conroy's Beach Music

Expectation is an undervalued power of the human mind. Teachers who expect high standards from students often get quality work handed in; teachers who hate kids and think they're dumb usually get results suggesting their students are dumb.

Pat Conroy's Beach Music was recommended to me as a very funny story about brothers that are brutally sarcastic with each other. While it is, in fact, a story of five brothers to a large degree, there are so many other things going on that I often felt like I wished it would just get back to the brothers. That said, the story never really dragged, evidenced by the fact that I made it through the 767-page marathon.

Jack McCall returns home to say goodbye to his mother as she dies from cancer, and is forced to face a past he has willfully ignored since the suicide of his wife. His four rancorous brothers and their drunk of a father do everything they can to make his re-entry into the family difficult, while he copes with his former in-laws who challenged him for custody of his only daughter, a group of life-long friends destroyed by a tragic mistake, and the past that he blames for not allowing him to love his deceased wife enough and also led to her death.

Now you get why this novel is so damn long.

In all seriousness, I did feel Conroy dove into too many pasts in order to explain the death of Jack's wife, Shyla. The absolutely heartbreaking tales of the Holocaust that had been dumped on her as a child, however, were probably the most powerful things I've ever read on that part of history. The level of detail brought home the horror of it like nothing else in my experience.

The problem for me came when he offered McCall's mother's past, that of another Holocaust survivor, and his childhood friend, Jordan, as well as a subplot surrounding the group. All written very well, it just felt like a bit too much for one novel.

Jack McCall, the first-person narrator, eventually became a bit too sweet to bare. Possibly I was just tired of reading the same voice for such a long time, but he had a touch of the holier-than-thou in him, and his desire to keep his daughter in a cocoon got a bit grating.

Again, expectations may have hurt my reading of the novel. Exchanges between the brothers were hilarious at times, and their story seemed to deserve more of the focus – not that I wanted more pages! The ending of the subplot was brought about in unique fashion, but may have been wrapped up too neatly. The main ending was truly emotional, and added the value you wanted all along to get to.

Beach Music has some of the best writing I've read since starting The Casual Critic, yet a lack of focus hurts it a bit. Still, it's worth reading.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

The Casual Critic — Will Smith's Lost & Found

I first bought a Will Smith album years ago when his funny lyrics in songs like “Parents Just Don't Understand” caught my teenaged attention. Movie soundtrack songs like “Men in Black” and “Nod Ya Head” nudged me to take a chance a few years back on Born To Reign — an album I still keep in my shuffle rotation. Combining the humor many know him best for while getting a touch preachy now and then, Smith's latest, Lost and Found, is another very good outing by the Philly product.

“Switch” seems to be the first song making the rounds these days. A very smooth offering, it reminded me a touch of early (before he was a freak) Michael Jackson stuff. The lyrics are nothing special, but it's one of the better tracks. The remix is a harder version that moves even better, though as a white guy with Cerebral Palsy offering advice on what moves may not be wise.

“Could U Love Me” and “Lost and Found” are also very good, smooth tracks that would likely stay in the mix for a Top 40 fan with an open mind. The title track is unique with what my casual ear would call an interesting use of chello. It's a great reply to his critics who whine that he's not a true rapper.

“Pump Ya Brakes,” with Snoop Dogg, and “If U Can't Dance” bring out some of the best of Smith with a combination of very funny lyrics within songs that move. I also love the words in “Ms. Holy Roller,” which rolls its eyes at born-again christians (“You can't be dirt your whole life and say oops”), and “Mr. Nice Guy” is a funny retort regarding his image.

“Tell Me Why” is the first song I ever heard touch on 9/11, and offers some good lyrics. “Wave 'Em Off” is a bit preachy, a slight problem throughout the album, but other songs with that problem are good enough to overcome it. “I Wish I Made That” points out a similar problem — the song is ok, but there's just too many replies to his critics on the album.

The collection is rounded out by two seemingly autobiographical songs — “Lorretta” and “Scary Story” — along with “Party Starter” and “Here He Comes,” none of which do a lot for me.

If you like what you hear from Smith on the radio, or want to go a little beyond the Top 40, Lost and Found is definitely worth listening to.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

The Casual Critic — F.X. Toole's Rope Burns

More short stories centered around boxing wasn't really what I had in mind not far removed from reading some of Hemingway's work focused on the sport. But F.X. Toole’s Rope Burns was what I had lying around, and a very strong intro from the author that reminded me of some of the reasons I came to love boxing convinced me to forge ahead.

This collection was anchored by the title story, which probably fits more into the category of novella, and “Million $$$ Baby,” the basis of the movie starring Clint Eastwood. Both offer unexpected twists, and while each has varying degrees of violence, they offer stories that do more than praise the sweet science as a noble if flawed sport.

“Rope Burns” follows a group of individuals of various race who are tied together largely through boxing in the tumultuous days surrounding the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles. The story offers a look at racial tensions that isn't completely unique but reads well anyway. The characters are the best in the collection, and a violent end is memorable, though the writer over reaches here and there.

“Million Dollar Baby” takes a mid-story twist that is truly unexpected. I would have liked just a bit more of the relationship between the reluctant trainer and the female fighter he eventually views as the first with the chance to make a million dollars. The violence that leaves him with an impossible choice is a bit too understated for me. Regardless, the ending lets the reader truly feel for both characters.

“Fightin' in Philly” goes a little bit beyond the rest of the remaining stories. It focuses on the nuances of boxing like the others, but the bond between fighter, trainer, and the “cut man” brings it to a slightly higher level. An excursion by Con, the “cut man,” to catch an art exhibit in Philadelphia was a fun glimpse into the human side of a grizzled veteran boxing man.

Rope Burns is rounded out by “The Monkey Look,” “Black Jew,” and “Frozen Water.” All three are decent, fairly easy reading, and offer nuances of the sport and enough story around the less-than-glamorous side of boxing to keep fans plenty entertained. Though “Frozen Water” stands out among the three, their similarities make things a touch dull.

Overall, Rope Burns is probably for the true fan of boxing, but I'd suggest even non-boxing fans can read it for fun while looking for something better.

Thursday, August 4, 2005

The Casual Critic — White Noise

I'm a bit of a wuss when it comes to scarey movies. So, I made a point not to watch White Noise at night. I needn't have bothered.

Jonathan Rivers (Michael Keaton) gets pulled into the world of Electronic Voice Phenomenon as he grieves the death of his wife. He soon becomes obsessed with this hi-tech version of connecting with the dead, and even begins to essentially see the near future via EVP messages.

A film that starts with some solid character development, White Noise simply gets lost in an attempt to add a scary, mysterious ending that even the director (or someone involved with the final edit) admits in a DVD extra isn't exactly clear. Though it's considered a horror film, only a few cheap, make-you-jump scenes are as close as the film gets to being scarey.

Again, it starts out decent enough. The character reluctantly enters the world of EVP, and seems to miss signs of a hoax. (In fact, I still think that would have worked well as his wife had been famous, and her death was a well-publized mystery for a time.) There's even plenty of reason to buy into the obsession he develops.

But, then, Rivers starts to get messages about tragic events that haven't occurred yet. He starts to comply with requests to intercede, and the film flirts with the absurd. For a while I was expecting Keaton to jump in the Batmobile, and foil the Joker yet again.

The film came off as being produced by EVP enthusiasts. A few DVD extras were essentially a short documentary of a couple that apparently have devoted their lives to EVP. It's too easy to mock what they do, but the basic concept lends itself to folks who want to believe. They literally tape hours of white noise and play it back to hear voices of the dead. These folks were actually asking the voices questions, and thanking them for communicating!

Isn't there a joke about it being ok to talk to yourself, but when you start answering . . . ah, forget it. (Ok, so it's not too easy to mock what they do.)

The DVD extras at least let you hear what the EVP folks consider messages from the beyond. Personally, I didn't hear anything a typical Radio Shack recorder taping an empty room wouldn't produce.

White Noise just doesn't have much to offer. Skip it.