Sunday, February 27, 2011


PATTERSON, JAMES AND MAXINE PAETRO. Swimsuit. New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2009. ISBN: 978-0-446-56136-5. Pp. 404. $14.99.

There's a movie out there, written, directed, produced, and starred by the mysterious Tommy Wiseau, and he's called it "The Room". While much of the story unfolds in one particular room, the room itself plays no part in the action. It is not because of this room that anything happens. It's just a space in which to perform (if you can really call it a performance--it's really more of a debacle). But, unlike James Patterson and Maxine Paetro's Swimsuit, "The Room" offers no titillation, no promise of sex or action or violence. But like Wiseau's chef-d'oeuvre, Patterson and Paetro's novel really has nothing to do with the title they have chosen, even if it does promise something more exciting than a room.

And, like it's title, Swimsuit really is a let-down as far as mass-produced thrillers go. It got its title because two of Henri Benoit's victims happened to be swimsuit models, but they turn out to be of little import. He doesn't have a swimsuit fetish or kills swimsuit models exclusively, although he does "specialize" in beautiful women if only because he video tapes his killings for the benefit of the "Alliance," a group of absurdly rich people all over the world who happen to have a taste for watching women being raped and murdered. Pairing of extreme wealth with extreme perversity and evil seems terribly naive. But then again, so is this book.

Much of the weakness of the book lies in the fact that the two foremost characters are almost identical, while one, Ben Hawkins--ex-cop, journalist, and author of best-selling mysteries--signifies pure goodness; the other, Henri Benoit (notice their inverted intitials, B.H. vs. H.B.?) is pure evil. Still, both are white, fairly-well educated men in their mid-thirties, both having a preoccupation with beautiful women. It's just that one loves his beautiful, talented, thrilling girlfriend, while the other kills his beautiful, talented thrilling girlfriends. And because we know already who the good guy and the bad guy are from the very beginning of the story, the only real question is, who will prevail? Too bad Patterson's readers are generally too conservative in their tastes to accept anything but a happy ending, even if it is a somewhat tentative one.

Another problem we encounter in the novel's narrative is its disjointedness. We're led to believe that this is the story of Kim McDaniels, a swimsuit model who also happens to be pre-med at Columbia University. [If there does exist or ever has existed an Ivy League pre-med student who also pursued a career in swimsuit modeling, please call me. Otherwise I will continue to think that Patterson is nothing but a complete boob (pun intended?).] The plot initially involves Hawkins flying to Hawaii where McDaniels, on sight for a photo shoot, has disappeared. McDaniels's parents also show up and they and Hawkins quickly team up in their search for the missing girl. Then the McDaniels père et mère are murdered, Kim is found beheaded, Hawkins figures out who the killer is, and somehow we're only half-way through the book.

After all this, the story flags considerably. Benoit wants Hawkins to write his memoirs and threatens to kill Hawkins and his girlfriend if  they try to call the cops. So they don't, even when the opportunity comes up. The action reaches its peak in Paris because Hawkins's girlfriend is foolish enough to open her hotel room door to someone claiming to be delivering flowers, even though she is well aware that she is being pursued by a killer. Sadly, Hawkins saves her without realizing that she's a moron. He is also given the opportunity to kill Benoit while saving his girlfriend, but he lets that get away. Fortunately the book was already almost over and I stopped myself from throwing it across the room.

Speaking of which, there's an unattributed quote on the DVD of "The Room," stating that it has "the passion of Tennesee [sic] Williams". In defense of a man praising his own work and trying to pass that praise off as that of someone else, Tommy Wiseau's film, while it cost him at least $6 million to make, initially only made $2,000. Who was going to praise it if no one was seeing it? On the other hand, James Patterson's Swimsuit, a bestseller, similarly has unattributed praise on the front of its paperback edition: "The most satisfying James Patterson novel since Kiss the Girls". I guess I'm not alone among the millions who have read Patterson's work and found nothing good to say about it.

Saturday, February 26, 2011


As you can see, I've added a donate button. Perhaps not for the most dire of reasons, but one of our cats started peeing blood (on our bed, no less) and somehow now we're much poorer than we were a week ago. Here's a picture of our boy, newly shaved and beautified.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Next week

Next week: James Patterson and Maxine Paetro's Swimsuit.

Water for Elephants

GRUEN, SARA. Water for Elephants. Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2007. ISBN: 978-1-56512-560-5. Pp. 350. $13.95.

Am I crazy? Am I seeing things that no one else sees? Let me talk a little about William Styron's masterpiece Sophie's Choice. It's the story of, among other things, Stingo, Nathan, and Sophie. Nathan and Sophie are a couple. They have befriended their neighbor Stingo. Stingo fears and respects Nathan and is in love with Sophie. Nathan is a paranoid schizophrenic. Now I want to talk about Water for Elephants, Sara Gruen's bestseller. It's the story of, among other things, Jacob, August, and Marlena. August and Marlena are a couple. They have befriended their fellow circus-guy Jacob. Jacob fears and respects August and is in love with Marlena. August is a paranoid schizophrenic. Or maybe I'm the paranoid schizophrenic, since the similarities are so clear to me, and yet have never been brought up by anyone that I can think of. Or is it just that plagiarism isn't so great an offense these days? Sure, one book is about the Holocaust and takes place in a boarding house in Brooklyn while the other takes place in a traveling circus. Marlena may not be Polish, but Jacob is. Both August and Nathan are Jewish and in love with non-Jews. In both cases this has caused strife in their and their loved ones' lives. To sum up, I plan on rewriting Shakespeare's Hamlet, but it's going to take place at the aquarium so no one will notice that I don't have an imagination of my own.

On the other hand, Water for Elephants is a well-researched piece of historical fiction, set during the Great Depression in, as I've already mentioned, a traveling circus.  Jacob Jankowski (he's Polish, remember) has just learned of his parents' death in a car accident and, consequently, walks out of his vet school exams at Cornell. Instead he performs that cinematic stereotype and jumps a moving train, finding himself face to face with a circle of toughs playing poker and drinking extract (Prohibition, remember?). They threaten to throw him over board, and then for some reason don't, because if they did there would be no book. They're with the "Benzini Brothers' Most Spectacular Show on Earth," and they decide to help out Jacob and try to get him a job. His being an almost-vet is his ticket to the show and he falls under the tutelage of August and Marlena.

August is a jealous guy and, like Nathan before him, suspects an attraction between Jacob and Marlena. Marlena is one of the performers and her character is as obvious as the pink sequin costume she wears for her show. Unlike Sophie, Marlena is the most fragile, precious flowery cherub, her cheeks flushing and paling at the thought of sex or violence, two things that seem to be everywhere at the circus; the color of her cheeks is constantly in flux. But what's more annoying than her delicate disposition is the fact that she's always crying or about to cry. How Jacob finds the strength to fall in love with someone whose face is always puckered is beyond me. Fortunately there is one strong female character in the book. Like Sophie, she's Polish and has suffered under some very bad men. Unlike Sophie, she's an elephant named Rosie. And a misunderstood one at that, like Dumbo. Did I mention that the circus manager and master of ceremonies, "Uncle Al," fits exactly the same physical characteristics as the one from Dumbo? Maybe I'm naive and all circus hosts look the same, but I can't help but be exasperated by Gruen's lack of imagination, or at least her inability to stray from what are only the most obvious tropes.

As it turns out, the most "real" chapters of the book are also the least interesting (and a lot like certain scenes from the movie The Notebook). Ninety-something-year-old Jacob is now residing in an assisted living facility. His wife (surprise, it's Marlena!) has already passed away, but his enduring love for her reawakens his memories of the days when they first knew each other, working at the circus. The narrative skips back and forth between the thirties and the present day, and while the circus parts are more fun to read, the old folks home sections are the most poignant. You kind of want to join in when Jacob breaks down and cries after learning his son forgot to come and take him to the circus.

To recapitulate: if one is not much of a reader, I recommend sitting down and watching Sophie's Choice, Dumbo, The Notebook, and a dash of Big Fish, preferably all at once. They actually made Water for Elephants into a movie, to be released this spring, which is probably how the book got back to the No. 1 bestseller spot. I'm not in the least surprised. Sara Gruen wrote the book to be made into a screenplay. Edward Cullen is playing Jacob. I always thought the cast of the "Twilight Saga" should run away and join the circus.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Nex week

Next week: Sara Gruen's Water for Elephants.

True Grit

PORTIS, CHARLES. True Grit. New York: Overlook Press, 2004. ISBN: 978-1-59020-459-7. Pp. 235. $14.95.

I have a confession to make. Having had no intention of reading Charles Portis's novel, I felt myself free to see the new Coen brothers' movie back in December. I thought it was great, one of their best. I left the theater feeling satisfied and that was that. Then, last week, I learned that True Grit the novel had found itself at the top of the bestseller list. Of course when I read it, I heard the Dude's thick drawl and laughed at Matt Damon's short stature. The movie proved to be so closely bound to the book that I couldn't read the one without picturing the other. My objectivity as a reviewer is flawed. But at least you know. 

There's a reason True Grit has been adapted into a movie twice, I think. If it hadn't, I doubt it would still be in print today. It's strength is in the dialogue, of which there is a lot, but the prose is terribly dry, allowing a director ample freedom to make a film that is both genuinely true to the text while producing a work entirely apart from the original. When I think of the liberties the Coen brothers took, I don't feel that they betrayed the story. On the contrary, I think they improved it. As a result, the film has left an impression far more lasting than the book.

Still, True Grit the novel isn't all bad. The narrative voice is that of a grown-up Mattie, now a lady journalist; the book, a autobiographical piece she is writing for publication, recounting her experience as a fourteen-year-old girl in pursuit of the man, Tom Chaney, who killed her father. As an adult, she is a less-than-perfect woman, a woman whose only interests, we learn, are the Bible and money, and her utter lack of interest in others (other than the now-dead Rooster Cogburn and the long-gone Texan LaBoeuf) proves to be almost comical. The novel begins with the statement, "People do not give it credence that a fourteen-year-old girl would leave home and go off into the wintertime to avenge her father's blood but it did not seem so strange then, although I will say it did not happen every day". Despite what our narrator tells us, the better part of the novel involves Cogburn and LaBoeuf trying to get rid of her, so convinced are they that she will be a burden on their hunt for her father's killer. Consistent with this initial attitude, the rest of the story is treated as something unexceptional, even at its climax.

Neither the woman nor the child seem to know their own limits, yet the loss of an arm at the end of the narrative does not leave Mattie remorseful for having accomplished what she has. Her shooting Tom Chaney directly led to her lost limb, but of this not a word is written. Mattie is not a soul-searcher, probably deliberately so, and what is most poignant (or cynical) about Portis's novel is the loneliness and bitterness that adult Mattie grows into. The days she spent with Cogburn and LaBoeuf were significant to her as a child, perhaps the most significant of her life. We realize this after she has Cogburn's body disinterred and transferred to her family's plot, despite not having seen him since she was a girl, more than twenty years prior. Tom Chaney may have paid the price for killing Mattie's father, but her triumph came at a price as well. Portis aptly leaves it up to the reader as to whether or not it was worth it.

Monday, February 7, 2011


I took the week off to pursue a different project, reading a number of Paul Auster's novels for a review for the website But fear not. Coming up next week: Charles Portis's True Grit.