Month: March 2018

“The Lords of Discipline” by Pat Conroy Review

Lords of Discipline

The Lords of Discipline

Author:  Pat Conroy

Released:  1980

I was loaned The Lords of Discipline by a friend that attended the Citadel about 40+ years after this book take place. He told me that the book was written by an author that went to the Citadel, and the book (which takes place at a Carolina Military Institute) was somewhat based on the author’s time at the school and revealed all sorts of hidden details that the school and alumni were upset about afterwards. In addition to that, the author was essentially banned from the university for decades. As I learned all this, I thought “I’m probably not going to care much about this book because I didn’t go to the Citadel and didn’t even know it was South Carolina until that same conversation.” Still, never one to turn away from a book recommendation, I went ahead and read the damn thing.

I’m glad I did, because this ended up being one of the best books I’ve read this year. The story is told through first person narrative by Will McLean, an Irish American cadet at the Carolina Military Institute in the 1960’s. He is roommates with Tradd St. Croix, an effeminate aristocrat from Charleston and two Italian Americans named Dante “Pig” Pignetti and Mark Santoro. I included their ethnicities, because a big part of this book is the language that these young men all use with each other, which reminded me of the barbershop scene in “Gran Torino” when every comment made was an insult about somebody’s heritage.  If the language in that scene bothered you, you will probably hate this book.  In the book, the language is often meant to be endearing, but other times it is certainly meant to hurt the recipient.

Will is a senior when the book begins, and most of the book takes place chronologically in that year except for a section that flashes back to his Plebe (freshman) year at school. The school is famous for being hard on the incoming cadets, to the point that out of 700 incoming students only 400 will stay with it through their first year. Conroy details the types of hazing done in that first Hell Night, the rest of Hell Week and the treatment somebody who had been separated from the rest of the class would endure. Unlike seemingly the rest of the upperclassmen, Will is against the hazing rituals and prefers to offer solace for cadets in need. Because of this characteristic, he is asked by Colonel “Bear” Berrineau (an analog for real life figure Colonel Thomas “The Boo” Courvoisie) to make sure that the first ever black cadet is not run out of the school due to extreme targeting.

Although that is the central plot of the book and where much of the conflict comes from, it is also absent from much of the book as Conroy fills in McLean’s world with other coming of age events. Much of that is time spent among the four roommates bonding in the room or taking part in shenanigans. There is also a significant through plot about Will’s courting of a Charleston girl named Annie Kate who has been hidden from the world by her parents for what is certainly the most predictable reason a woman in the 1960’s would be hid from her social circle. Will also plays on his college basketball team, and there is an extended chapter about a game that also was drawn directly from true events in Conroy’s life. Finally, it seems throughout much of the book the individual Will is closest to is Abigail, Tradd’s mother. The two of them have a surrogate mother/confidant relationship.

Despite reading as autobiographical and often humorous, I found much of this book to be very suspenseful. The stress that the cadets go through is palpable, and that even extends to characters that are not part of the core cast. The consequences for making a mistake ranged from physical violence or psychological damage to an excommunication ritual that seemed like the end of the world for those it was imposed on. The antagonists in this book were often mysterious unknown figures. The possibility of a secret group pulling the strings made it difficult for the reader to trust anybody Will confided to.

Oddly, despite the book being suspenseful it was also somewhat predictable. **Vague spoilers follow** From the moment a phone call alerts several dangerous individuals to Will’s nearby presence, it is clear that not only is there a traitor but who in particular it is. Likewise, out of the three main army officers at the school, one of them is never in doubt as not being on Will’s side and it’s hard to believe Will would fall for a trick that makes him discredit another. Finally, Will’s ace in the hole at the end is easy to spot coming based on a character that served no other purpose in the book aside from providing a lot of information about a peculiar hobby. **End of vague spoilers**

However, the predictability did not bother me as it also made sense within the world that was established. Rather than create a twist ending that makes you question everything that took place before, Will experiences a shocking twist that we have predicted based on what information he has shared through that point. The additional twist involving Will’s girlfriend earlier in the book felt like an unnecessary one, however by that point the book had built up enough goodwill that I was willing to overlook it. The end result was a book that was humorous, suspenseful and touching throughout with very memorable characters.

5-star

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“Basketball and Other Things” by Shea Serrano Review

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Basketball and Other Things

Author:  Shea Serrano

Illustrator: Arturo Torres

Released: 2017

When I was in tenth grade, one of my favorite teachers made an assignment to participate in historical tea parties. How it worked was four students would each be assigned different historical figures. The student would need to research their person, come to class dressed up like him or her, and then eat at a tea party with the other three while the rest of the class watched. There were a few questions we needed to discuss, staying in character for how our person would have answered them. My figure was John Adams. Being a huge fan of “1776,” I basically just did an impression of William Daniels acting as John Adams for thirty minutes. Anybody whose seen the movie knows that John was “obnoxious and disliked, you know it’s so.” The character played well into my sense of humor and I had the class laughing throughout, particularly as I talked down to other people that didn’t go to Harvard. Even though I probably did less research than other people the end result was a perfect score and such a memorable performance the teacher wrote one of my recommendations for college and referenced it three years later. Sometimes personality is more important than content when it comes to conveying information.

Shea Serrano’s Basketball and Other Things reminded me of Arnold Schwarzenegger playing Mr. Freeze in Batman and Robin. No matter how much makeup, costume and special effects you cover Arnold in, you’ll never forget you’re watching Arnold Schwarzenegger playing a character. Similarly when reading Serrano on Grantland, The Ringer, and The Rap Yearbook, it does not matter what the article or chapter is about, there is never any doubt you are reading a piece by Shea Serrano. What makes a Shea Serrano article unique? In honor of his frequent article construction, let’s break down the elements:

An Introduction based around a personal anecdote – Do you see how I started this review? That’s the basic idea. Whether the chapter was about the best fictional basketball players or which player’s legacy would change the most if they had won a championship, there was always at least a little insight into the mind/history/interests of the author to set the tone for the chapter.

A set of elements or factors to consider when making a decision – Whether the question is subjecting (who would you most want to dunk on?) or seemingly objective
Funny artwork, charts, and graphs to assist in discussion – The artwork in Basketball and Other Things was once again done by Arturo Torres. Each chapter includes at least one full page, full color image that references something or somebody discussed in the chapter. The charts and graphs in this book are for the most part more informative than the ones Serrano uses in his articles on line, but there were still some funny ones mixed in.

Footnotes galore – Nearly every page in this book has footnotes at the bottom. These typically fall into two categories. 1) Informative – These are the ones where Serrano writes something like “He’s only the 4th guy to do this” and the footnote will include the other three. 2) Humorous – This is self-explanatory. My personal favorite was when making a list of the best player to never win a championship, the footnote mentioned how he could not foresee Carmelo Anthony ever winning one, which made him sad and made me happy.

A reliance on opinions over stats – It make sense that Serrano has gotten his break writing for Bill Simmons’s websites, as the two have many of the same strengths and weaknesses. Both guys like to draw comparisons to pop culture when looking at sports storylines, both wear their fandoms on the sleeve (San Antonio Spurs for Serrano), and both are not the first person would trust to decide an actual basketball intellectual argument. The difference between the two, is that Simmons unfortunately tried to do just that in his Book of Basketballwhile Serrano for the most part avoids that goal.

Overall I had a lot of fun reading this book, but it is not for everybody. The humor can be pretty juvenile (I feel like the subject of penises came up at least 6 times). Most of my favorite sections were the sections that were not even trying to be serious basketball writing. Conversely, my least favorite chapters were when Serrano wrote as straight forward as possible (specifically, the “what happened right before the big play” chapters felt like reading game recaps for 15 pages). Although I’ll shelve this book in my basketball section of my home library, it could just as easily fit in the humor section and probably succeeds more in that genre.

4-star

“Atlas Shrugged” by Ayn Rand Review

Atlas Shrugged

Atlas Shrugged

Author:  Ayn Rand

Released:  1957

Full disclosure: I listened to the audio book of this. It was 63 hours long.

Late in this book, there’s a moment where one of the heroes takes over the radio waves to make a speech about why the great men in this society have all abandoned the masses. It’s an essay on the values of those men, versus the values of the rest of society. The men are tired of having their work, their ideas, and their money taken away from them by individuals who do not work, don’t have ideas, and don’t produce their own wages. It’s the central thesis of the book, and for the most part it is eloquently stated. After the speech, the government panics. More great men join the movement. The government decides that the man that made the speech must be made the dictator of the economy as only he can fix these issues. The man refuses to help, stating the reason why he refuses was laid out in his three hour speech. Sorry Ayn Rand. I just had the speech delivered to me, and it actually took SIX HOURS to listen to.

That’s how the whole book felt. Some very thought provoking arguments were delivered, every good guy was qualified to give a thirty minute statement on the value of the individual, and every conversation felt completely phony and at least twice as long as it should be. Every piece of dialogue in this book felt like that speech. It’s people droning on and on, uninterrupted, while they all fall on one of two sides with no gray area characters in between. All characters are on one of side of the moral absolute or the other. It’s an interesting idea for a book. In execution, I found this to be incredibly tedious.

The plot of Atlas Shrugged (great title) centers on Dagny Taggart, the Vice-President in Charge of Operations for Taggart Transcontinental railways, who is one of the most efficient individuals in the industry. The man in charge of the railroad is her brother James, a worthless inheritor of a company who actively does things that undermine the company. Why would he do that? James has fallen in with several other powerful lobbyist and legislators who actively seek to regulate the industry of the country to 1) preserve the current powerful corporations from their upstart competitors and 2) make sure that revenues also go to those in need and not just that that produce. The novel is also populated by remarkable men® who want to have sex with Dagny, including copper magnate Francisco d’Anconia, steel tycoon Hank Rearden, Dagny’s right hand man Eddie Willers, and the mysterious reputations of Ragnar Danneskjold and John Galt.

Each man (and Dagny) in the previous paragraph (except for her brother James) is the exact same man, with the exact same ideals, just at different points in the same chronological storyline. The prodigy becomes the millionaire becomes the rebel becomes the revolutionary. The antagonists in the book are all interchangeable as well. Each villain is a individual confident making laws that take things away from successful people, but who literally panic or freeze if somebody challenges their ideology. If I were reading a paper copy of this book, I would have started highlighting each time somebody said “Don’t say that! We shouldn’t even think that!” in response to somebody challenging the ‘take from the doers and give to the need’ers’ philosophy. If you’ve ever read through the comments section on a political article and seen somebody refer to another as a Libtard, you have a good idea of what Rand’s view of the opponents of her philosophy are portrayed as.

It’s a shame really, because provocative art is normally right up my alley. I’ll go to bat for just about anything Spike Lee or Larry Clark, and Steinbeck’s political writing is among my all time favorite. I agree with a lot of what Rand wrote, and I really loved The Fountainhead. But this entire book felt phonier than a Wes Anderson movie house with zero of the charm. There’s a scene where a young man never previously introduced in the book is shot during a labor dispute. As he lays there dying in Hank Rearden’s arms he give a 30 minute diatribe about what the meaning of ownership. At a cocktail party, Francisco d’Anconia gives a two hour speech on the same material every other good guy is espousing and everybody present sits silently listening with no rebuke afterward. The America of Atlas Shrugged is populated by business men who all give lengthy speeches and sniveling hangers-on who can not form a cogent argument against them or perform any job of productive value. The ratio of civilians seems to be about 100 of the sniveling whiners to one remarkable man. Throughout all 1100+ pages, there are numerous sections on people losing the will to work, or businesses going under because no quality men are available to hire.

The plot has some fun elements to it but they get buried in the lengthy discussions, a dull protagonist, and a really stupid ending. How stupid is the ending? **Spoilers follow** Imagine the government has the number one enemy of the state in custody. They take him to a remote military installation under lockdown with 14 personally chosen soldiers to watch him. Now imagine that group of soldiers getting the crap kicked out of them by 3 business men and a business lady. When one soldier gets shot, he asks “who shot me?” and the man in the suit responds, “Ragnar Danneskjold.” It only makes sense in this world the business men with strong values and self worth would also be better at soldierly work than the weak men with no individuality who would rather be shot than make decisions (but it doesn’t make it read any less ridiculous).

Equally problematic is the entire character arc of protagonist Dagny Taggart. Hank Rearden gets a lot of crap from Francisco for being the biggest culprit at enabling the corrupt system to thrive, however Dagny is basically allowed to just be reactive throughout the entire book and not be held accountable by the rest of her peers. Her biggest character arc is that she trades up her dream man whenever she meets a better version of him. Luckily for her all of the men don’t seem to mind, as they all love each other (platonically) and in the entire book there is only one other woman who meets the standard to be welcome into the men’s world, and she’s a retired actress and current cafeteria worker. The love scenes between Dagny and Hank are as creepy as you would expect, with Hank being a very demanding lover who insists on replacing foreplay with monologues on his values.

Go read The Fountainhead for a much more entertaining book that gets into the same ideas but doesn’t feel like getting a hole drilled into your head.

1-star

“X-Factor Vol. 2” by Jeff Jensen and Arthur Ranson Review

X Factor vol 2X-Factor Vol. 2 1-4 (Complete Series)

Writer:  Jeff Jensen

Artist: Arthur Ranson

Colors:  Paul Mounts

Letterer: Paul Tutrone

Released:  2002

I’m continuing to go through my collection of back issues in search of series I either never read or don’t remember very well.  Much like with books, I’ve been known to sometimes buy comics at conventions or stores when they’re cheap and then forget to read them for several years.  While one of my all time favorite comic series is Peter David’s X-Factor Vol. 3, I’ve actually never sat down and read the first two volumes before.  Since Volume 1 is over 100 issues and Volume 2 is only four, I decided to continue working my backward and do the one I could read in a day.

X-Factor Volume 2 is one of those series that focuses on the normal people living in the superhero universe, much like Damage Control of Gotham Central.  Here, it follows two special government agents on a dedicated mutant task force.  Their duties seem to be in dealing with hate crimes against mutants, but the unofficial mission is more keeping tabs on extremists on both sides of the mutant agenda.  The two agents are a white male who has lost the use of his hand (though is getting a new cybernetic one) due to an incident with a mutant, and an African-American female who recently had an infant daughter whose mutation activated causing her to burn herself to death in her crib.  Needless to say, it’s not a laugh riot.

The four issues in the series tell  fairly unconnected stories, with each issue focusing on a separate case that is fairly well resolved by the end.  The first issue is the mystery of the murder of a man tied to the Hollywood sign with the word murder carved into him.  The second issue follows a baseball player who is planning to reveal to the world that he is a mutant.  The final two issues of the series focus more on the two agents finally beginning to trust one another and figure out who is pulling the strings on the anti-mutant agenda.

Throughout the series, the X-Men show up in brief cameos.  Jean Grey sends a mind message; Wolverine makes a threat, Nightcrawler captures a criminal.  If you’re here to read superheroes this isn’t the book for you.  Unfortunately, I can’t say the lead protagonists were particularly memorable.  The male in particular (I finished this series last night and I can’t recall either of their names) was bland, with his major character arc being the decision to be a more open-minded parent.  Likewise, the antagonists are in the shadows for most of the series so there’s not a lot of memorable moments with those guys either.

The artwork by Arthur Ranson was also inconsistent.  The bulk of the cast of characters are civilians in regular attire.  The two main characters are always easy to tell apart, but the supporting cast often melted into a shadowy white dude melange.  The superheroes that showed up don’t give me a better of idea of his ability, as Jean Grey and Wolverine were just OK, while Nightcrawler was fantastic.

Image result for x-factor ranson nightcrawlerI can’t decide if it’s just the Paul Mounts colors putting him over the top, or if Nightcrawler fits in better than the other heroes in the shadowy world of Ranson’s art.

My score indicates I didn’t enjoy this series, but really the series just felt very unnecessary and fairly forgettable.  I can’t imagine ever revisiting this book or recommending it to somebody, unless they’re just a huge fan of Sam and Twitch and are looking for a Marvel Universe watered down analog.

2-star

“Secret Histories” by F. Paul Wilson Review

Secret HistoriesSecret Histories

Author:  F. Paul Wilson

Released:  2008

The young adult trilogy of Repairman Jack books kicks off with Secret Histories, also by F. Paul Wilson. Jack, last name withheld, is a teenage boy who rides around the town of Johnson, New Jersey (named as such because President Andrew Johnson stayed the night there once) with his two best friends Weezy and Eddie. Weezy is a conspiracy theorist who believe there is a secret history of the world that is being covered up, while Jack just likes hanging out with Weezy. While on one of their adventures, the three kids discover a dead body that has been mutilated and a strange cube that contains an even stranger object inside. After discovering it Jack begins to make connections about his local town and mystery of the death and object.

As a prequel series to the Repairman Jack series, Wilson has some interesting opportunities and challenges to work with. In the adult series, we never really discover how Jack becomes such a formidable individual. How does he become a master of being incognito, using weapons, defending himself and solving mysteries? When the first book, The Tomb (1984) begins, Jack is already adept at performing “Fix-its” for people, is living under the radar, and has all the same skills he is using by the end of the series. He also has a supporting cast of characters that he already has history with (Gia his girlfriend, Abe the arm’s dealer, and Julio the barkeep being the primary three). Being published in 2008, there were also 11 or 12 books worth of books exploring Jack’s mindset, and we know the fates of his mother, father, brother and sister already, but not much about their youths.

The largest challenge Wilson faces though is that his series is a supernatural one, and Jack enters The Tomb as a skeptic. As readers, we’ve either had 24 years or 11 novels of work to see Jack evolve from a skeptic to a believer regarding things like the Adversary, the Otherness, the Ally, and Mother. It doesn’t make any sense for him to experience supernatural events in the prequel novels, or else he would not be a skeptic when The Tomb begins. Wilson obviously wants to tie events from Jack’s youth to his adventures in the present, so he must walk a tightrope of having the absurd occur but have Jack not believe or remember what he experiences when he is older.

For the most part, he succeeds on both levels in this book. Jack begins to collect skills (lock picking, fix-its) and a moral compass, while not being totally aware of the supernatural events happening around him. The closest he gets to being a believer is seeing a shadowy movement at night time and an apparent government cover up, however both are certainly events that could be explained away by an adult remembering the fancies of childhood later on. Wilson also does a nice job of developing Jack’s dad and brother Tom as characters, foreshadowing the sorts of men they will be when Jack is an adult. Unfortunately his mother and sister Kate are both as one dimensional here as they are (based on what we know of them) in the adult books.

I imagine it will be more difficult to read the next two books and still believe Jack is a skeptic when he is an adult. On top of that, Wilson has written a second prequel series about Jack’s first years in New York that will likely add to that problem (while probably focusing on this supporting non-family characters in the adult books). As a standalone book this one is very fun however. Jack’s fix involving his friend Steve is as brilliant as anything he comes up with as an adult, and what we know of the mystery is enough to keep the reader anticipating the next adventure.

4-star

“Spandau Phoenix” by Greg Iles Review

Spandau Phoenix

Spandau Phoenix

Author:  Greg Iles

Released:  1991

In 1941, Hitler’s top officer Rudolph Hess flew in a secret mission to Britain. What the purpose of that mission was has always been a great mystery. Some even believe that the man who landed in Britain was not the real Rudolph Hess, but was instead a double, and the man who has been sitting in Spandau prison for four decades is Hess’s double, and the American, English, German and Russian governments all may know the truth and have reasons to want it suppressed. Spandau Phoenix tells the story of the chain of events that occurs when the prisoner in Spandau Prison dies, and a German police officer discovers a diary written by him revealing part of the mystery.

This is a book with a ton of characters with different motivations who all get sucked into the intrigue. Just off the top of my head, there are:
– Hans – a German officer who discovers the book.
– Ilse – his wife who is aware of the mystery and later used as a bargaining chip.
– Professor Natterman – the couple’s grandparent who believes in the important of revealing the contents of the papers.
– Hauer – Hans’s father, a senior officer and former military sniper
– Jonas Stern – An Israeli intelligence officer who is the closest thing this book has to Liam Neeson
– 4 other Israeli soldiers who are assisting Stern
– Alfred Horn – The mysterious South African man with unlimited resources and henchmen
– Pieter Smuts – Horn’s South African head of security
– Luhr – The evil German police officer who loves torturing people
– Schneider – The German detective who gets roped into working with the Americans and reminded me of The Rock.
– Colonel Rose – The American officer who manipulates the situation to use Germans to pursue his goals.
– Neville Shaw – England’s head intelligence officer
– The Sparrow – A middle aged woman who is an assassin with a vendetta against Stern
– Colonel Karami – A Libyan with unlimited henchman doing business with Horn
– Richardson – An American who is kidnapped and taken to East Berlin by the Russians
– Several Russians who kidnap Richardson and are attempting to retrieve the Spandau papers
– Boromir – A Russian intelligence officer willing to cross any line
– Benton – An expatriated soldier doing wetworks for England
– Diaz – A Cuban mercenary and airplane pilot
– General Steyn – The South African in charge of relations at the Embassy, who has history with Stern
– Steyn’s top two officers, one whom is loyal to him and another who definitely is not

There’s probably three times as many characters throughout the book, but those are the main ones I can think of. Besides the individual character motivations, almost all of them are are also motivated by the impact of their country by the release of the Spandau secrets. England, Germany, Russia, America, Israel, Libya and South Africa are the main countries here, and a decent knowledge of global politics and World War II history will add to your enjoyment of this book.

This is the second book chronologically (first in publication order) by Greg Iles dealing with World War II. Spandau Phoenix is much more ambitious that Black Cross but less enjoyable overall. While Black Cross primarily stayed confined to three characters (Jonas Stern, an American aiding him on a mission and a woman in a concentration camp), the stakes felt higher for all of them than for anybody in this book. In fact, if I hadn’t read Black Cross previously I don’t know that I would have cared about Jonas Stern as much as I did, and he is certainly one of the book’s main characters.

The only characters whose arcs were compelling to me throughout where Ilse and Hauer. Ilse started off making a really foolish decision, but did a nice job thinking on her feet afterward. Hauer was the most convincing of the eight action movie style characters (Hauer, Stern, Schneider, Smuts, Richardson, Sparrow, Benton, Boromir), and blended a nice pragmatist philosophy with some Schwarzenegger in Commando parenting skills. Conversely, his son Hans was the worst character in the book, present to create bad situations for Hauer to get him out of.

The rest of the characters certainly made sense in this global historical fiction tale, however as a reader all of the jumping around made it so I didn’t feel invested in 80% of the cast. The larger problem was that the central conceit of why all of these countries were willing to kill and cover up everything in pursuit of the Spandau papers was pretty much dismissed by Hauer toward the end of the book in terms of how much the general population would care about their contents. I definitely feel like a learned about Cold War era Berlin, the abdication of Prince Edward VIII and the relationship of Israel to other world powers, and the mystery of Rudolph Hess’s flight kept me more involved than if I had just perused his Wikipedia entry (which I just did). However, the overall story was stretched out and inflated more than I would have liked and I suspect others may feel the same way.

3 star