Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Between a Rock and a Hardcover

Between a Rock and a Hard Place
by Aron Ralston
Atria Books,  New York, 2004
352 pages

Have you heard of the movie 127 Hours?  It was nominated for best picture last year, and it's a true story based on an incident where a young man from Colorado got his arm trapped behind a boulder while climbing down a remote canyon somewhere in Utah.  He spent six days stuck like that before he finally cut off his trapped arm and hiked to rescue workers and lived to tell the tale.  Sounded like an amazing story that I really didn't want to see, so I decided to read it instead. 

Aron Ralston (the protagonist and author) is a good writer.  He tells his own story in this book in a style that was apparently inspired by Quentin Tarentino movies.  (Read the acknowledgments, people!)  The first chapter is about his fateful hike and ends with him getting his hand caught.  The next is back story.  The third recounts his first full day in the canyon, and the fourth is another story from his past.  And so it goes.  Ultimately, this format is what made it difficult for me to finish the book quickly.  While I found many of the stories from past hikes to be interesting, the chapters were pretty heavy in hiking-related details.  And since I didn't feel like flipping back to the glossary every couple of sentences, I was a little lost as to the significance of using this piece of equipment or that specific climbing technique on a specific adventure.  Plus, I was more interested in the story of the man in the canyon, and at times it felt these interruptions were only slowing that down.  While I liked these chapters (for the most part) they did slow the momentum of the book, and one held almost no interest for me whatsoever. 

A little over halfway through the book, the format changes somewhat.  While still alternating subject matter, Ralston changes from going back and forth from past to present and instead focuses these even-numbered chapters on the rescue effort that is going on while he is trying to survive without food, water, or sleep.  Once I hit this point in the book, I was almost unable to put it down (until I fell asleep, which was more a comment on my lack of sleep these past few weeks than it was on the book itself).

Overall, I'd recommend this book to anybody who's interested in the autobiography of a guy who survived six days in a canyon before cutting off his arm.  It's quite grim and grisly at times, and the language can get harsh, but I think that's pretty understandable given his circumstance, wouldn't you?  Ralston's writing is engaging and his reflections on his life and his family are stirring.  You also find yourself cheering for Ralston's early attempts to extricate himself from the rock, even though you know they're obviously not going to work because you most likely think of this already as "The story where that one guy cuts his arm off."  When he finally figures out the secret of his escape, I found myself ready to cheer out loud. Though it's good that I didn't, because my wife and month-old son were sleeping nearby.  That to say, it's a book that will affect you.  Or occasionally bore you.  Or both, as in my case.  Of course, if you're really into reading about scaling mountains, then this is probably your new favorite book.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Wizard and Winter

Got a fun idea: While I was watching the Academy Awards, I realized I'd much rather read many of the stories nominated for Best Picture than I would care to actually watch the movies.  So with that, I went online the next day and reserved as many books that had become BP-noms as were available.  (There were only four in this year's crop)  Started reading The Accidental Millionaires (the book The Social Network was based on) and ended up dropping it after 73 pages.  This wasn't because it was a bad book (it was a bit crude, though obviously I've been able to overlook that in the past); rather it was because I had just recently seen that movie and was kind of bored with the story since I already knew where it was going.  So that's two books I've given up on this year. 

Anyway, two books finished recently.  One is not a best picture nominee, the other is.

Wizard and Glass (The Dark Tower IV)
by Stephen King
1998 Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel (nominated)
698 pages
Published by a lot of different distributors, and I can't find the exact edition I read on Amazon

This was a re-read.  I first read The Dark Tower right when I was starting to get back into reading and around when Robbie was born.  This has always been one of my favorite books in the series because it has sort of a self-contained novel smack in the middle of the overarching narrative of the series.  The majority of this book is a flashback providing some welcome back story to King's gunslinger, Roland Deschain.  And it's a thrilling, frightening, passionate Western about young love and small-town politics and conspiracies and reality-altering mysteries.  And Hey Jude.  Trust me, it works so much better than it sounds like it ought to. 

The opening of the novel is a continuation of the ten-year cliffhanger from King's previous Dark Tower novel (The Waste Lands, which is also superb).  It's pretty intense.  Following the opening episode, the characters find themselves in Topeka, Kansas, during the events of King's non-DT novel The Stand.  Then Roland takes on the role of storyteller and delivers the origin of his quest for the Tower and his ill-fated romance of the daughter of a horseman in a small outer-barony town.  It's really compelling stuff.  Also occasionally grisly and disturbing.  If King sees an opportunity for a disturbing scene, he'll always take it.  Likewise, the passionate love-making sequences are largely unedited, so proceed with caution.  Overall, though, the story itself is a great adventure epic that augments the rest of the Tower saga.  And after Roland's tale is told, the book takes one of the strangest crossovers in the entire series.  ("There's no place like home..."

All said, this was a good choice to re-read, even if I had forgotten exactly how creepy Rhea of the Coos could be.  A solid tale well-told if you have the stomach for it. 

Winter's Bone
by Daniel Woodrell
224 pages
Back Bay Books, 2007

Running out of time, so I'll try to make this quick. 

This was one of this year's Best Picture nominated films.  It's very good and very disturbing as it depicts the lives of a family of drug-makers in the Ozarks.  Our protagonist, Ree, is truly a heroine worth rooting for.  If she doesn't work, the whole book is a waste.  But she does.  In an environment that seems to be breeding perpetual self-destruction, she holds on to hope that things can one day be a little bit better for her family.  Not in a Pollyanna, pie-in-the-sky sort of way, but realistically. 

In the story, seventeen-year-old Ree's father has disappeared (again) and is wanted in court (again).  He's signed their house away as evidence that he'll show, and if the man doesn't come to court the city will be able to seize the family's property.  Ree sets out to find her dad, and you learn that the entire surrounding area is inhabited by a family that protects itself and its secrets.  At every turn, Ree is commanded to give up her search, and pretty soon she can tell that whatever has happened to her father, it was bad news.  As she uncovers bits of information, she challenges a lot more than tradition, determined to either save her family or die in the process.  And there are times when you're pretty sure she'll do both. 

I enjoyed this book.  It was very dark and dismal, but not without hope.  Again, it's all in the heroine: she makes the whole thing work.  Woodrell writes of a world far removed from my own reality in such a way that I feel I can understand and relate to it, and that right there is the mark of an incredible narrative.

Oh, and since it's been stuck in your head since the post title:

Monday, March 7, 2011 then that happened

Reading has taken a hit lately since the new baby was born.  Also, my writing has picked up a LOT over the past week, which has eaten further into my recreational reading. 

Looking for balance, people.  Trying to find the balance.

Nevertheless, I've been reading more than it seems like I have.  I've got two books that are almost finished, one of which was pretty lengthy, and while I've been working on them I've finished three shorter books, none of which were amazing and two of which took a surprisingly long time to get through (mostly because they were boring and I was sleepy, so I could literally fall asleep while reading).

Here they are, then: The books that I done did finish in February 2011.

How To Run a Theater
A Witty, Practical, and Fun Guide to Arts Management
by Jim Volz
Backstage Books, New York, 2004
181 pages (because I'm not counting the index, seeing as how I didn't actually read it)

This was a good beginner's book in being a theater administrator.  A lot of it had to do with managing your schedule, reducing stress, running an efficient meeting, representing your company well, treating your employees with respect, developing a healthy infrastructure for your theater was a little depressing, actually, given current circumstances.  Still, it's amazing to me how much "be a good person" seems to have the same checklist as "be a good manager." 

Still, a good how-to book that was both concise and thorough.  Not nearly as witty or fun as the subtitle would want you to believe, however.

The War of Art
Winning the Inner Creative Battle
by Steven Pressfield
(Forward by Robert McKee)
Rugged Land Publishing, New York, 2002
165 pages

Way back when I was keeping track of a recommended reading list, this book was on it.  And after reading it, I can see why the person who recommended it liked it.  This is a book you're probably either going to love or hate.  I tend to gravitate closer to the "hate" side, though I think Pressfield's point is valid and important.  I liked the basic idea of what the book has to say, but I'm not too crazy about the way the author said it.  I think you could probably have published the most important ideas in a pamphlet and it would have been equally impactful on my life.  And it did have a definite impact, don't get me wrong.  Basically, Pressfield says that there is this Resistance that tries to keep artists from creating.  It comes in many different forms: excuses, conflicts, writer's block, fatigue, need for (and lack of) validation, et cetera.  To truly be an artist, one has to overcome Resistance if one hopes to succeed and fulfill their fullest potential.  (This is part one of the book)  In order to overcome Resistance, the artist must learn to "Be a Pro."  That basically means discipline.  Treat your art with the same discipline you give your job.  Get to it every day, whether you feel like it or not.  Do your best work.  Force yourself to stay in the habit of creating.  Deny Resistance the opportunity to slow you down.  (This is part two)  When you commit yourself to your art, you will become better.  Your imagination will sharpen.  Your senses will hone.  You will become a better artist.  (This is part three)  And I thought, "Yes, this is right.  I will start writing every night again, because if I don't I will always find a reason to put it off, and I'll never be a writer."  And that's more or less what I've done. 

Two points the book loses me on: First, I always dislike a book that I feel is belaboring it's points.  (This was part of my case against The Sacred Romance last month) I get what you're saying, let's move on.  (To Pressfield's credit, this is a surprisingly quick read because a third of the pages are only half-full of words)
  Second, and this is why you'll either love or hate this book, Pressfield goes into a lot of divine mysteries of the artist sort of things that I don't usually like.  Part Three of the book is all about accessing a Higher Realm that sends emissaries (angels or muses) to whisper into artists' ears while they write, paint, sculpt, or whatever.  A higher consciousness comes to us in our dreams because we are artists, and this other realm that exists just outside the physical realm really just wants to watch us make good art all the time.  He justifies this approach by using a single line of poetry as evidence and then proceeds as if this necessarily makes it so.  I tend to agree more with the writer of the forward of this book (odd when the guy who writes the forward disagreed with a book before you've even had a chance to read it) that such inspirations are more often born from within the artist though I don't discount the possibility of divine inspiration.  But then, I've always bean leery of the "artists are holier than everybody else" school of thought.  It's part of why I didn't want to consider myself an artist for a number of years.  So again, you'll either love this idea, or you'll be more than willing to pass on it.

The Pig Did It
by Joseph Caldwell
Delphinium Books, New York, 2008
195 pages

Hey, a book without a subtitle!

This was actually one of Kim's library books.  She put it down after about page 10.  I decided to give it more of a shot and wasn't ready to drop it until I was two-thirds of the way through, and by then I figured I'd just finish it up.  It's not a bad book, and it had several scenes that were fantastic.  It just never seemed to gain any significant momentum.  The language was pretty witty, but even that grew a bit tiresome after awhile.  It looked to be a romantic comedy with a whodunit type twist, but the book never really seemed to care much about either storyline.  And I'm sure that's the style this particular novelist was going for.  And, I know this novelist is good, because he's won the Rome Prize for Literature by the American Academy of Arts and Letters.  So he's got far more pedigree than I have, this one just didn't suit my fancy. 

Again, I have to point out that parts of the book were really very enjoyable, and I even caught myself laughing out loud on more than one occasion.  But the bizarre, wandering, disconnected nature of the narrative often left me flipping to the back to figure out how many pages away from 195 I was.