26 February 2012

Book Review: "The Postman Always Rings Twice" by James Cain

In 5th grade I read Where the Red Fern Grows and spent the entire time wondering why the author decided on that for his title. There is not one mention of fern (let alone red fern) for most of the book. It's not until the very last page where the meaning of the title is revealed. It involves dead dogs. That's a big spoiler but really, you should totally see it coming. It's a book about a boy who loves his dogs. Of course the dogs are going to get it.

I felt similar about this svelte little novel, waiting until the very last page to catch a fleeting reference to twice-ringing postmen. The result? Nothing. It's a non-sequitor, almost completely unrelated to the happenings of the story. Perhaps through a tedious form of mental gymnastics one could produce a metaphor to justify the title, but I don't quite buy it.

I just think it's a nice sounding title.

The book itself is a fun, quick read - a classic of the 1930's hard-boiled crime genre. A wily drifter enters into a fiery love affair with a femme fatale who co-owns a rural California rest stop with her jolly Greek husband. The two form a plot to kill the Greek, but things quickly go awry and what ensues is a winding tale of violence, sex, and (perhaps most gruesome) lawyers.

Two things pop out to me. First, I think back to The Natural, which I read earlier last month. My biggest gripe with that book was the fact that I could never get behind the protagonist, Roy Hobbs. I was too focused on all the many things I didn't like about him to support his struggles. At times when I was supposed to feel empathy, I only felt frustration. In Postman, we've got a classically awful human being as our protagonist but I never found myself struggling to be interested in his conflicts. Perhaps the fact that I was reading the story as told by him in the first person provided a more personal connection than was felt in The Natural, which featured a third-person narrator. Perhaps there is just a certain charisma in his words that was not evident in the very, very uncharismatic Hobbs. Either way, I found it interesting that I was so invested in the plight of such a reprehensible figure. Call it the Lolita effect.

The other thing that hit me about Postman was the swiftness and ease of Cain's storytelling. When I finished the book I felt like I had gone through 200 pages worth of twists and turns. Postman packs that kind of punch in only half that amount of pages. Cain is very economical with his words, opting for terse images and descriptions and supporting his story with a steel narrative skeleton.

Postman was banned in Boston at one time because of its "obscene" content, but the definition of that word has evolved enough since the 1930's that this book's notorious subject matter is nothing more than PG-13 stuff by 2012 standards. I recommend this sexy little crime novel with the non-sequitor title for anyone who digs compelling crime stories and anyone who likes The Maltese Falcon but wishes the characters would just talk less and act more.

It's a good novel -- nothing I'd ever elevate to must-read status, but certainly worth a glance if you're allured by the famous title and you've got 115 pages to kill.

22 February 2012

Book Review: "Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal" by Christopher Moore

"God is a comedian playing to an audience that is afraid to laugh." (Voltaire)

As much as I'd love to delve into the Dostoevsky burning a hole in my to-read bookshelf, I've been extremely busy lately and the arduous task of having to actually critically think while reading is terrifying to me. I've currently got 10,000 things flying through my head at once -- dense themes and motifs simply have no room at this moment.

That's why I picked up this book. It's a fairly easy read (though at 400+ pages, certainly not a quick one) but it's also goofy, irreverent, and supremely entertaining. When yo live in D.C. everything around you seems to be in do-or-die mode. Everyone drives like they're escorting a politician. Everyone boards the subway like they're off to meet a politician. Everyone acts like a dick like... well... like they're a politician. It was nice to take a few hours out of my everyday routine to get lost in something silly and absurd, namely the zany Gospel of Levi bar Alphaeus who is called Biff.

Lamb runs on a simple premise. During the 20-30 year span of Jesus' life unaccounted for in the four biblical Gospels, he embarked on a grand journey that took him as far as the east coast of India, immersing himself in the teachings of eastern philosophy while trying to understand how to be the Messiah and deliver his people to freedom. The whole entire time, walking right next to him, was his wise-cracking best friend Biff.

Author Christopher Moore, who spent years researching first century Israel in order to accurately portray his comedy's backdrop, paints an imaginative saga filled with characters often thought of as the stuff of legends (Simon-Paul, Judas, Jesus himself - though accurately called Joshua in the book) in the most human way possible. Moore gives Jesus/Joshua something hugely lacking in any of the Gospels - a personality. He is passionate, emotional, and loving just like the Jesus of Luke, John, Mark, and Matthew, but also self-effacing, jocular, and even existentially distressed at times with the humongous weight on his shoulders.

The Jesus of the Gospels performs miracles like they were going out of style, and conducted himself in a manner that basically said, "of course I can raise the dead, I'm freaking Jesus - this shouldn't shock you." Moore's Joshua struggles with mastering his amazing abilities during his teen years, then ponders the philosophical implications that go along with being the one man on Earth who can conquer nature. He is often plagued with guilt at his inability to save people, almost like Batman reading through the newspaper in the morning and seeing reports of all the muggings he could have prevented if only he had not been handicapped by being a mortal.

Joshua, Messiah and all, is still just a man and subject to all the torments and conflicts men face in their lives. Faced with an angel's command that he must never know women, the thirteen year-old Joshua struggles with his teenage body's urge for sex. Teenage Joshua also deals with other real life problems: issues with bullies, family struggles, and social injustice, among them. And despite being the Son of Man, Joshua ends up needing his buddy Biff to help him through tough times and dire straits.

Ah, Biff. Biff is the real star of the show here. It is, after all, his Gospel and he's a vital player in all the action. His narration is filled with clever insights and wisecracks (and profanity, including from the mouth of the Messiah himself!) as well as details of his bountiful (though not necessarily respectable) romantic conquests. He is Joshua's best friend and has Christ's back throughout the tale, following him from Nazareth to Antioch to Kabul to China to Calcutta and back. Biff comes through in the clutch multiple times, his bluntness and ingenuity a perfect compliment to Joshua's whimsical naivety. Their chemistry together forms the backbone of the novel and reinforces the most enjoyable elements.

The story is quite absurd (that's the point after all), with plot points ranging from a love triangle between the two friends and Mary Magdalene (another childhood friend and not a prostitute, that's a common misconception, affectionately called Maggie) to Joshua's friendship with the last of the yetis (I couldn't make that up).

Along the way, Joshua and Biff learn from the mythical three magi about the Buddha, the Divine Spark (which later becomes the Holy Ghost per a recommendation from John the Baptist), and kung fu, of all things.

The novel falters in places. You can tell that Moore was more keen on writing some parts than others as detail wanes in certain sections of the book (most notably in India). The entire ending of the book is kind of a train wreck, as if perhaps the author ran out of time on a deadline or hit his page quota too soon or quite simply didn't know a better way to end the damn thing (though I could probably offer ten-thousand better suggestions). Lamb could certainly have been better edited and the text put through an additional rewrite to reconstruct portions of the book that become stale. This is my biggest gripe with the novel; there's an imbalance between vision (phenomenal idea) and execution (lackluster delivery at times).

Aside from those qualms, I still really enjoyed Lamb and feel it more than served its purpose as a fun, entertaining diversion to counter the rigorous academic stuff grad school shoves down my throat. I'd definitely recommend it if you like off-beat comic writing, the works of Vonnegut or Douglas Adams, or the portions of The Master & Margarita involving Yeshua Ha-Nozri and Pontius Pilate.

One last point that should be covered: Moore had every opportunity here to bash Christianity and Judaism or blasphemously make a mockery of the Jesus story. He masterfully avoided that route and wrote Lamb as a light absurdist satire that is actually pro-religion in more ways than it is anti-religion. The tone is good-natured and Jesus/Joshua is portrayed positively. I think this is a phenomenally fascinating read for those who appreciate religious mythology but don't necessarily buy into all the caveats of organized faith. I can't get behind a god that for some odd reason hates gay people, but I most certainly can get behind a Christ who knows kung fu. -RM-

07 February 2012

New Music Plus Links To Downloads

I'm back to writing and recording music again. I'm currently instrument-less here in Maryland but with the magical powers of technology I've managed to leap that hurdle.

The name Red Stripe Radio doesn't mean anything. I just like the way those words sound together.

"Tearin' Up My Heart" was, I'm not embarrassed to say, my first "favorite song" back when I about 8 years old. It's got this bad stigma attached to it now because of the way we look back at the boy band era, but the song itself has legs and great potential for experimentation. The late 90s to the mid 00s hold a lot of cherished memories of my childhood and adolescence. I think this cover bridges the gap between what made me happy once as a kid and what fuels my passions today at 22.

If you check out this page, you can listen to/download some rough recordings of other songs as well: http://www.last.fm/music/Red+Stripe+Radio