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Thursday, November 24, 2005

The Casual Critic — Sidney Sheldon's The Sky is Falling

Sidney Sheldon's The Sky is Falling was decent entertainment, filled with easy-to-read chapters that had frequent breaks — great for those of us that like to know a place to put our book marker is never far — and a thick plot that sends the protagonist on a romp around the globe.

Journalist Dana Evans doesn't quite buy that the sudden deaths of Taylor Winthrop, beloved government official, and his entire immediate family all within a year are tragic coincidences. Her celebrity wrought by her field work covering war-torn Sarajevo gives her the clout and rather hard to swallow access to investigate despite being the only one whose curious.

Sheldon's propensity to jump in and out of scenes is somewhat annoying, and made it difficult at first to understand why Evans seemed to be able to get just about any meeting she wanted. I just didn't buy that a war correspondent would gain that much celebrity. It is pushed to its limit when a crush of autograph seekers allows her to escape one dangerous scenario.

The dialogue between characters on a personal level was absolutely horrendous most of the time. Much of it surrounded the young boy who Evans "rescued" after he was orphaned by the war in Sarajevo, which eventually became a plot line we could have lived without. Inner thoughts also gave me that feeling in the pit of my stomach that told me I was happy not to have written a particular line. They simply rarely, if ever, added anything, and often gave an awe-shucks feeling, which is never a good thing.

Ultimately, plot carries the book as was no doubt intended. You must suspend believability, but its worth it. I read the last 100 pages in a rush to see what happens. Overall, I give this a middle-of-the-road-nodding-toward-good read it for fun while looking for something better.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

The Casual Critic — Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point

Reviewing Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point is a bit intimidating, I must admit. It was a rare foray into nonfiction reading for me, and, as Gladwell’s new Afterword makes clear, it is intended as an instructive how-to on "tipping" (essentially having something become wide spread) your own ideas.

This book is extremely interesting even if you’re not looking to "tip" anything. It offers insights into psychology, history, pop culture, and group dynamics, just to name a few subjects covered in absorbing, readable language. Gladwell takes the model of epidemics such as the flu or AIDS, and explains how it can be (and has been) used to create fashion trends, popularity for products, turn little known authors into best-sellers, and even reverse the crime rate.

Gladwell looks at how Hush Puppies became cool, the incredible success of Sesame Street and Blues Clues, the impact cleaner subways had on the New York City crime rate, and even the reasons Paul Revere went down in history while no one's ever heard of William Dawes. (Dawes covered the southern areas of Lexington as Revere headed north with the famous warning that "the British are coming.") The examples are meant to illustrate the book’s subtitle "How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference," and, to a point, they do.

The new Afterword does a good job of relieving the only real problem the book may have — the supposed usefulness to someone looking to tip their own idea, product, etc. Admittedly, this is where my intimidation factor kicks in. Gladwell seems to take examples of rather brilliant ideas or incredibly innovative individuals to illustrate how things tip. He even describes the special kind of people it takes to tip an idea — connectors, mavens, and salesmen. I’m still not sure the problem is solved — these people are considered extraordinary for a reason — but it’s a book I’ll almost certainly be thinking about for a long time whenever the entreprenuerial juices we all have kick in.

Gladwell does reach a little too far sometimes, and tends to inundate the reader with studies supporting his ideas. However, those minor flaws do little to hurt the book. If you’re into this type of subject matter at all, or just looking for something to stir your mind, The Tipping Point is worth reading.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

The Casual Critic — The Die Hard Trilogy

Killing a Saturday afternoon watching Die Hard 2 makes me wonder why we watch the Die Hard movies again and again . . . and again.

Ok, the first few times we can say we're looking for the intricacies we undoubtedly missed on our first viewing. Just how did John McClain finally get to fingerprint the first terrorist he knocked-off when he was barred from any official business? These are critical details you simply can't retain after just one viewing.

Then there are the times when it just sort of ended up on, and, after you got comfortable, you realized the clicker was out of reach. You don't really want to watch, but there's nothing specific that you do want to watch so you leave it on. These are the days that you watch it on regular T.V. despite the horrendous voice-overs that cover up the frequent F-bombs. It's bad enough Bruce Willis isn't actually doing McClain's voice-overs, but we all know that "Yippee-kayee, Mr. Falcon" just doesn't cut it.

Watching it between Thanksgiving and New Year's allows for the classic-holiday-movie excuse. Don't we all watch It's a Wonderful Life every year? We used to watch it three or four times before NBC bought exclusive rights and took that holiday joy away, but that's another column. This argument also holds up for the original Die Hard, as both take place just before Christmas. In fact, at least Die Hard 2 ends with "Let it Snow" as the credits roll. (If I wasn't the Casual Critic, I'd feel obligated to find out what serenades us at the end of the original.)

But, let's face it, we watch the Die Hard trilogy because they're guy movies. They're the ultimate cops and robbers. Some guy, a regular guy who happens to be a cop, goes from an ordinary day to single-handedly thwarting an elaborate terrorist/criminal plot. He throws bad guys through windows, climbs around in secret compartments of buildings, and blows up a plane-full of terrorists with his lighter.

What's not to love?

If you're in the mood for a guy movie, any of the Die Hard is worth watching . . . again.

Thursday, November 3, 2005

The Casual Critic — Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City

Jay McInerney continuously breaks one of the most basic rules that I ever learned about writing with Bright Lights, Big City. When my high school English teacher told the class she never again wanted to appear in any of our stories, we all held our breathe wondering who crossed what line, and how we could get to read that story. The anti-climactic realization that all she meant was that using “you” in narration was a bad idea didn’t make it any less true.

Surprisingly, McInerny’s constant use of second-person narration wasn’t all that distracting. But it also didn’t really add anything — the reader just adjusts to “you” instead of “I” and moves on. I’m guessing the point of “breaking the rule” was to emphasize the rebel that struggles to live within the main character. His pursuit of all the cliches of the night life — clubs, drugs, sex, and, well, more drugs — is finally getting old even to him. It seems to have been at the heart of a failed marriage to a model now thriving and still living the lifestyle, and finally costs him a mundane job at an artsy magazine that offered him some credibility with the trendy.

Ultimately the story reveals that our anti-hero is coping with the anniversary of his mother’s passing. While personal experience leaves me easily touched by death-bed scenes, and I must admit McInerny’s was no different, this whole aspect of the story seemed forced. For two-thirds of the story the guy is just a jerk throwing his life away, then with no warning an aspect of his story that makes him sympathetic is thrust on the reader.

Even worse, the family part of the story only seems to be an attempt to justify the protagonist’s current lifestyle. In fact, there’s no real indication that he was any different prior to his mother’s death, and a judgemental brother hardly needed any urging to take a walk on the “wild side.”

Solid writing almost overcomes a bad choice of a literary device that is merely a cry to be noticed. McInerney’s attempt to be edgy weakens what could have been a good novel. At best read it while looking for something better.