Text-to-Screen Ratio: Appaloosa

February 26, 2009

(Editor’s note: This post is relatively free of spoilers, though plots and scenes are discussed regularly.)

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When Robert B. Parker released “Appaloosa” in 2005, it was a move welcomed by his long-time fans. Parker has been the undisputed dean of American mystery novels for more than three decades, with his Spenser series of novels balancing a tough-guy private eye with a surprising amount of literacy and romance. His terse writing style and stoic characters falls right in line with the Wild West mythos, and his novel of freelance marshals Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch was a perfect application of those strengths to the setting.

Parker’s books have been successfully adapted to other media over the years – a television show “Spenser: for Hire” ran from 1985-1988 and CBS currently has a series of films based on the Jesse Stone books – and while I haven’t seen them myself the reception from critics and Parker himself has been positive. So with the recent popularity of contemporary Western films such as “The Assassination of Jesse James” and “3:10 to Yuma,” an adaptation of “Appaloosa” made as much sense as Parker writing the original book. And to the film’s great benefit, it follows that book near perfectly. appaloosa234

There’s virtually nothing to complain about if you’re a purist for plot (as I am). The film follows the text chapter by chapter, as Cole and Hitch enter the frontier town of Appaloosa to break the control held by rancher Randall Bragg and make the acquaintance of the widow Allie French. All major elements make the transfer: shootouts that are over in a minute, encounters with Indians that depend on silent understanding, power struggles and shifting circumstances in a typically lawless town. It also keeps the all-important little details, with Cole reloading immediately after every shootout, constantly reading authors like Emerson and occasionally stumbling when using their words in conversation.

About the only major omission to the book is a series of moments where Hitch and Cole find themselves watching an Appaloosa stallion and his mares in the hills overlooking the city. In the book it adds to the silent understanding between the two men and later an undertone to the developing relationship between Cole and Allie, and its omission removes some of that depth. Some other cosmetic changes have been made, such as skimming over the original meeting between Cole and Hitch and changing the role of a key witness against Bragg.

But the removal of one or two scenes can be forgiven because the film preserves the greatest strength of any Parker novel: the dialogue. Parker’s characters feel natural when they talk to each other, particularly the long-running team of Spenser and Hawk, economical with their words but always real and quite often funny. The script feels like it has been literally copy-pasted from the book pages, not trying to transform it into an overly heroic Western or enforce unnecessary back story on Cole and Hitch. Such a transfer would fail on most books, but going off a Parker book a straight adaptation simply makes sense.

It helps considerably that the dialog is delivered by Ed Harris and Viggo Mortensen, actors perfectly tailored to depict Parker characters. Harris has the weathered look and stone eyes of Cole’s seen-it-all yet focused attitude, but Mortensen is the star as he plays Hitch with a slightly amused grin and an eight-gauge shotgun draped over his shoulder. Cole seems to lack a bit of reserve from the book – surprising from the always stoic Harris – but the two preserve the sense of men who have known each other for so long they can have an entire conversation with only a few words.

The rest of the cast is hit and miss for matching characters. Timothy Spall is a treat as town leader Phil Olson, depicting the stuttering pompousness most normal men would have in reply to Cole and Hitch, but the major supporting characters are bland in their execution. Renée Zellweger is underwhelming as Allie, and Jeremy Irons brings a solid menace to Bragg but lacks the suggested subtlety. In the book both had more of a sense that there was something ugly underneath, an underlying need for control, and their portrayals don’t move deeply enough.

Thankfully though their character differences never affect their interactions with Cole and Hitch, which is really all I need out of them. Bragg knocks back shots of whiskey at a table with Cole and tries to lay down the law (he fails), while Allie tries to seduce Hitch to keep a man in reserve (she fails). These characters are there to provoke reaction, to show the code of honor neither man feels the need to put into words – Parker’s code, as at home in the untamed West as it is in the streets of Boston.

Final adaptation score: 9 out of 10. It follows the story without omission, adapts the dialog perfectly and picks up enough little details to regularly give a feeling of satisfaction. Parker fans will have a very hard time being disappointed here.

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Book Service Review: BookMooch.com

February 25, 2009

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As a freelance book critic, former employee of publishing houses and domovoi of Powell’s Books, I tend to frequently find myself in possession of more books than I can handle. A packrat nature means I like to keep as many of them as I can, but considering I live in a one-room apartment that stores only two major shelves, some titles and I are always going to have to part ways – especially if some of said titles are rejected for review or were so bad they have no place on my shelf.

Now when clearing out your library there are a few options. Certainly, stores like Powell’s and Half-Price Books are willing to pay for titles, but you have to haul rather heavy boxes to do so and run the risk of the books being undervalued or turned away. You can also give the books to a thrift store or to friends, but if you’re getting rid of titles you paid more than a little for (i.e. any books you didn’t buy used) you may feel a need to recoup your investment.

Selling and gifting books may seem the only alternative to letting them take up shelf space, but thanks to BookMooch.com a third option exists: barter. Founded in 2006, BookMooch.com is built on the principle of “give books away, give books you want” and successfully implements this concept through an accessible interface and a surprisingly broad range of titles on display.

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To use BookMooch, simply register for a free account and use the homepage to add titles to your inventory, which the site identifies through a connection to the Amazon site of your country. Your books are then placed into the database where other users can find them in a search, and you receive an e-mail notice the same way you would for any eBay bid if it is requested. When requested you are provided the address and note from the moocher, and you may accept or reject. Accepting a mooch awards you a point, which can then be used to request books from other user inventories

How soon your books will be scooped up varies depending on titles posted, and what people have on their wish lists. I posted about half a dozen economic or political books I’d collected when my office was throwing out surplus, and most of those were mooched within 24 hours – though with one or two exceptions all were mooched by the same person, a site administrator who runs a book trading group between several university campuses. To experiment I posted a few duplicates of favorites I own, and while “Hooking Up” (Tom Wolfe, not Tila Tequila) is still up two weeks later, “Naked Lunch” is on 75 wish lists and was claimed in five minutes.

Once you accept a mooch, you can contact the seller directly for any clarification and keep them apprised through the site, which lets you mark when books are shipped out or if there are any delays. Shipping is simple, particularly as you’re only sending books – thanks to media mail you pay a flat weight rate much cheaper than normal shipping costs. International shipping will of course be more expensive, but BookMooch actually compensates you with two additional points for sending to another country. Once shipped, users give you feedback in the same way as eBay bids.

Giving away books proved easier than expected, but cashing in points proved a bit trickier. I searched for the authors whose canon I’m striving to complete, as well as some possible review titles, and found nothing in the way of what I was looking for. Some of those titles did pop up in a broader search, but a language barrier came up quickly: do I really have any use for “Anansi Boys” in Spanish, a Swedish version of “Fight Club” or a dozen German Terry Pratchett novels?

Yes, if you go into BookMooch looking for specific titles the odds are good you may not find what you’re looking for right away, unless it’s a title usually found at airport kiosks. At its core BookMooch is a bazaar of used titles, and like any used bookstore there are books being given away for a reason. The “Most Available Books” section is topped by “The Da Vinci Code,” followed by the works of Michael Crichton and John Grisham – barely a Vonnegut or HST to be found.

If you want to cash in your points, I recommend following proper used bookstore protocol and simply browse until you find something interesting. I randomly searched through author names and topics and found a book on literary quarrels, a collection of Montaigne’s essays and a Neil Gaiman short story collection. They’re not the sort of titles I’d go to the store looking for, but ones which I saw and knew I’d enjoy.

If there’s a particular title you’re looking for you can create a wish list and be notified by e-mail, but you’ll have to respond quickly if many users have it listed. Also, be sure to note that mooching from another country costs two points.

Overall, I endorse BookMooch – after only a few weeks of using the service, I’ve added four new titles to my shelf and cut my surplus down by a dozen with no problems in receipt or communication. It’s certainly not the site if you’re looking for something in particular or instant turnaround on your extra books, but if you want an informal exchange and used bookstore feeling without leaving the house it’s certainly worth registering an account.

For more background on BookMooch.com, I recommend:
Clear the Bookshelf and Fill It Up Again, All Online, by Joanne Kaufman, The New York Times, October 15, 2007


Back Shelf Review: Barack Obama

February 10, 2009

(Editor’s note: These reviews are written post-election, but I feel compelled to insert a qualifier. I voted for Barack Obama in both the primary and general election and volunteered for his campaign in the fall, but do not write these reviews in an effort to add more hero worship. What follows is a judgment of Obama the writer, not the politician or idealist.)

The election of Barack Obama to the presidency of the United States was a milestone for more reasons than we can count. Most obviously, he is the first African-America elected to the office, he is a first-term senator elected in a time of war and economic crisis, he comes from a background whose diversity is unmatched in American politics and is also the first candidate to obtain a following typically reserved for rock stars.

What makes it really remarkable, at least to some circles, is that Obama is the first man to be elected to the presidency who has two titles that were No. 1 on the New York Times Bestseller List. An acclaimed author before he even declared his candidacy, Obama’s books have been praised by everyone from Jann Wenner to Michiko Kakutani to Christopher Buckley. And even separated from the mythos surrounding Obama, they deserve every bit of praise.

dreams-from-my-father-barack-obama-paperback-coverThe first title, “Dreams from My Father,” was published in 1995 following another groundbreaking Obama presidential election, this one for the Harvard Law Review. A son born from two different worlds – a black father from Kenya and a white mother from Kansas – Obama traces his journey to find out where he belongs. We see his childhood in Indonesia, rebellious youth in Hawaii and his work as a community organizer in Chicago, all culminating in a journey to Kenya to understand the man whose name he bears.

Little of the story is likely new to readers, considering how inextricably Obama’s biography is bound to his popular image. The surprising part is just how much of his story he is willing to share, even considering he wrote this book before entering politics. “Dreams” is a very personal book, touching on of his sense of alienation in school, belonging to “the club of disaffection” as a young adult and the early disappointments of Chicago’s South Side. His background may be diverse, but the tradeoff is that he has nowhere he truly belongs, and for endless paragraphs he goes inside himself to try to figure that out.

In the hands of many writers this sort of consideration could get old, but Obama’s writing is something else: graceful prose, every word carefully chosen and reflecting a wide understanding of literature. His descriptions of Indonesia and Chicago are evocative but avoid dwelling too heavily on the topic, while the conversations he has had to fill in from memory never feel inauthentic. He also regularly uses the triptych (or rule-of-three) effect as expertly as he does in his speeches, creating a choral effect and examples that remain in the head.

The last third of the book where Obama travels to Kenya is marvelous prose: heartfelt conversations with family members, a sense of wonderment at the scope of the country and the final moment at his father’s grave that comes across as nothing short of rebirth. As he looks back over the tumult that marks his ancestors, realizing how his path is tied to theirs, the feeling is so real that you cannot help but be pulled fully in and forget whose name is on the cover.
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Obama said in a revised introduction that the social and political implications of his story are meant for another book, and he kept that promise with the release of “The Audacity of Hope” in 2006. In “Audacity” Obama turns his critical eye from himself to the United States, discussing the structure of its government and the issues that shape its citizens. He tells the stories of the people he spoke to during campaigning, and also shows his own growth into a family man.

In the prologue to “Dreams” Obama quotes a reporter who after reading commented “I wonder if you can be that interesting in the next one you write.” It’s a valid question, especially when matched to the mastery of his first effort, and the 10-year gap between books. Certainly, “Audacity” is more of a politician’s book than his first effort, named after his speech to the 2004 Democratic National Convention, and as a politician’s book, it naturally takes a different tone.

This book is a clear template of Obama’s political platform, and virtually all of his speeches from the campaign can be tied to some chapter in it, be they his landmark speech on race (“Audacity” is ripe with discussion on Chicago’s racial make-up) or his attacks on President Bush (discussion of the Constitution regularly brings up the Senate debate on conservative judges). Here he is writing to convey a message, rather than write to organize his thoughts, and while the voice is the same it carries a professorial, occasionally dull tone.

But Obama the senator has not obscured Obama the writer, and while “Audacity” doesn’t pull the heartstrings it does certainly make us empathize. In many ways it’s even cleverer than “Dreams,” using each personal example as a gateway to pull you in. A deeply heartfelt section on meeting his wife Michelle and raising two daughters is bound to his views on the American family and the pressures of a household, and his discussion on the Constitution recalls Senate legends like Robert Byrd he has felt privileged to learn from.

In comparing the distance between these two books, Obama unsurprisingly puts it the right way in “Audacity”: “If I am wiser, it is mainly because I have traveled a little further down the path I have chosen for myself, the path of politics, and have gotten a glimpse of where it may lead, for good and for ill.” What we see between the two books is maturation, Obama having come to enough comfort with himself that he wants to bring what he has learned to others. His writing is rooted in a sense of journey, and a sheer desire to bring us along on that travel.

Refreshingly, both books can be appreciated separately from the mythos of their author. “Dreams” is a masterwork, a poetic and honest tale of a man struggling to find his place; while “Audacity” is more refreshing than the ghost-written texts politicians usually turn out to add one more accomplishment to the list. Even if readers cannot dislodge Obama’s image from their minds while reading, they will not only learn that their commander-in-chief is truly emphatic and intelligent, but will be assured that after his term he will write the best memoir to ever come from an American president.

For more exhaustively researched articles on the relationship between Obama and literature, I recommend:
–    Barack by the books, by Laura Miller, Salon, July 7, 2008
–    From Books, New President Found Voice, by Michiko Kakutani, New York Times, January 18, 2009