Sunday, May 27, 2012

The Ruins of Us

The Ruins of Us
By Keija Parssinen

Despite what you might think, I listen to you. I really do. I know it doesn't seem that way given that I seem to read whatever I want and  it would seem that I don't listen to your recommendations and almost never act upon them. That has more to do with my location than anything, but I do try.

I love visiting other book blogs and while I'm cruising around I keep a pen a paper handy. I jot down titles and authors that pique my interest and every time I go to make a Kindle order (which isn't as often as it should be but my financial situation calls for book buying prudence) I only order books that have been recommended via email or blog. This title is proof positive.

One of my favorite blogs, Raging Bibliomania, reviewed this title a few months back and given that I love novels set in the Middle East (and that try as I might, I could not find a single title on her blog that I had previously read), I bought it on my Kindle. So now you know! Give me enough time and I'll read the books you read! I promise.

Anyway, onto the book...

The Ruins of Us is a novel by Keija Parssinen, an American citizen and third generation expat born in Saudi Arabia. It is the story of a cross-cultural family living in Saudi Arabia who, due to several mitigating factors, are being pulled apart at the seams. Rosalie, like the author, is the daughter of an American expat who grew up in Saudi Arabia before moving back to the States for school. She develops an obsession with the Arabian peninsula so much so that she falls in love with and subsequently marries the one-handed Abdullah an Arabian student as the University of Texas.

Fast forward to the present day: Rosalie and Abdullah are well into middle age, Abdullah has surreptitiously taken a second wife (legal, but not especially condoned) while Rosalie and Abdullah's 16-year old son seems to be falling in with a militant crowd of Jihadis. Add into the mix the family's best friend, a pathetic american divorcee with an unhealthy crush on Rosalie and you have the makings of a solid literary melodrama.

And if this novel were set in Madison, Wisconsin or Biloxi, Mississippi or Boulder, Colorado that's exactly what it would be: a family melodrama not unlike so many others. Much like American Dervish, What makes this novel so unique, and so compelling, are the intangible elements that are placed the character's way due to their setting and tradition. The establishment of Abdullah's second marriage, the fact that Rosalie, as a foreign spouse, has no rights, the constant adherence to religious and social mores, the elements of change, especially among the younger generation via social media and other technology made accessible by the extravagant wealth as well as the ever-present religious fundamentalism that threatens to tear the country apart.

All of these themes turn a simple family melodrama into a novel that should not be ignored. For anyone curious about life in The Kingdom, Parssinen's novel is a poignant portrait of family life on the peninsula and how traditions and social changes affect the household (or in this case: households). The story is told from the perspective of several characters (divided by chapter). This gives the reader a chance to empathize with each and every character and see how each of them have gotten to where they are and how they have justified their outlandish (to the reader) decisions to themselves and their immediate surroundings. Such an approach does much in terms of understanding the culture and the sets of circumstances standing in this family's way.

But that's not all!

As with so many great novels, Parssinen has done a wonderful job of establishing the setting not only as a location for the story but also as a character unto itself. Parssinen's Saudi Arabia throbs with vitality and contradictions throughout the narrative. The history of the peninsula is juxtaposed wonderfully against the recent decadence of oil wealth. The religious rigidity and intensity of the populace is counterbalanced with their humor and hospitality. You can practically see Parssinen pining for her days in Saudi Arabia while simultaneously reflecting on why she's better off elsewhere.

The Ruins of Us was a stunningly great read and I encourage anyone even a little interested in these themes to check this one out.

Shout Out

I, once again, really have to thank Zibilee over at Raging Bibliomania. She she recommends good books!

Monday, May 21, 2012

Them Or Us

Them Or Us
By David Moody

Enough about having kids. Let's talk zombies! (Some mild spoilers ahead. Nothing serious though).

I'm not sure whether David Moody began writing Them Or Us that he expressly attempted to write a book bleaker and more hopeless than The Road by Cormac McCarthy. If this was his aim, he has succeeded. While he may not have McCarthy's gift of poignant prose (who does?), Moody sure does have the ability to suck every ounce of hope out of a book in a right hurry. While this isn't necessarily a bad thing in the zombie genre, it takes a strong will to muscle through this series. Casual zombie fans, beware, this is heavy-duty nerd territory.

Them Or Us is the third in the Hater Series (for the others in the series see Hater and Dog Blood), and the bleakest of the lot of them. Considering that each novel ends on a low note, that's saying something. What started out as a kick-ass spin on the traditional zombie tradition (Hater) quickly descends into chaos (Dog Blood) and finally a dissertation on the apocalyptic end game.

The Hater series follows the life of Danny McCoyne, a mild-mannered municipal government employee who , along with a substantial portion of the British population, seem to randomly develop something called: The Hate. It is a disease (or whatever) of unknown origin that compels those afflicted to kill those unaffected in the most violent and cruel ways possible. the result is an all-out disintegration of modern society in a matter of weeks. The world descends into utter and complete chaos. It's an interesting spin on the traditional zombie tradition in that it gives the "zombies" a form of sentience and therefore allows the protagonist to be a "zombie" himself without having to resort to pages and pages of: "uhhhnnngh.... nnnnnggggghhhh!"

While the first novel left me elated and keen to read the rest of the series, both Dog Blood and (especially) Them or Us left me asking "What was the point?" Once it becomes established that non-Haters have lost the war and those with the Hate are in control of the world, it's like reading a zombie novel for zombies by zombies about being a zombie in a zombie world. Where am I supposed to place my allegiances? Now, I'm  pretty sure that exactly the reaction Moody was going for since there is never any explanation as to what the Hate is or where it comes from. In Moody's world, things happen far too fast for anyone to stop and consider the scientific origins of human devolution. But by the end of the series when there is obviously nothing left (not even hope) one must ask: "No, seriously... what WAS the point?"

Well, obviously, the metaphor.

Most zombie culture tends to focus on the initial rise of the undead and the chaotic first hours and days of the apocalypse as a metaphor for our own wicked ways. David Moody (as well as Joan Frances Turner in her excellent novel, Dust) is far more interested in how things play out once the apocalypse is upon us and in its denouement. With the added bonus of sentient zombies, we get an all-out war that includes the dropping of several nuclear warheads on the already scarred English landscape. Them or Us follows the final days of Danny McCoyne as he tries to maneuver himself through a politicized zombie world where non-zombies (almost) cease to exist and the rest seem to be out to destroy each other as best they can. As with so much other zombie canon, it's an unsubtle metaphor for our own over-comsuption. And while I love me a good metaphor, I don't want to be bludgeoned with it.

But even the bleakest of all zombie culture (or Cormac McCarthy novels) seem to leave an ounce of hope at the end. something the reader or viewer can take with them, an open-ended conclusion to which we can all ascribe a semblance of hope. Not here, my friends. If you are looking for a pick-me-up novel to wash away the doldrums or a nice light summer read, steer clear, my friends. But ifs you are in the mood for all out human disintegration on virtually every level (familial, societal, emotional and biological) then David Moody is your man.

Not to put too much of an academic spin on this, but I got the impression that Moody took Richard Dawkins book The Selfish Gene to it's illogical extreme and posited what would happen if we became that selfish gene and lives our lives for there express purpose of eliminating all other competition (while simultaneously NOT procreating). I wonder whether Moody has read about E.O. Wilson's controversial new Theory of Social Evolution that supposes that human altruism is an evolutionary necessity rather than simply the notion of procreating and protecting our own. Okay, it's not the best metaphor, but anytime I can through Dawkins and Wilson into a post about zombies, I have to take my chances.

All this is not to say I didn't enjoy the series. I did. Very much. Especially the first book (WOW!). But the series certainly had its flaws. There were all sorts of points where I questioned Danny McCoyne's judgment. Why would a sentient zombie who has lost his entire family, nearly died in a nuclear blast, currently riddled with cancer while being used by political factions on all sides agree to help another sentiment zombie leader after the literary equivalent of "C'mon.... just do it! I'll be your friend!" But of course, I don't have the Hate so I cannot comment on how those that do have it make their judgments. But all that is worth overlooking since Moody is exploring territory that few zombies writers (George Romero included) have not: The End of Times via Zombie. If you are a fan of the dystopian apocalyptic genre, this is certainly not a series that you can overlook.

Casual fans should stick to Max Brooks.

Zombie haters? There's always Twilight.

Shout Out

One of my favorite blogs to visit is The Boston Bibliophile. I've taken more than one recommendation from her and she is still batting 1.000.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Be Prepared: A Practical Handbook for New Dads

Be Prepared: A Practical Handbook for New Dads
By Gary Greenberg and Jeannie Hayden

As I mentioned before, there's a few of these books coming down the pipe.

I have a nine month (six to go) book competition playing out in my head. I am currently auditioning the role of go-to manual for fatherhood. You know, the book I will keep tethered to my end table in my bedroom until my son or daughter turns 18 and I kick them out the door. I'm looking for that all-encompassing guide that will tell me how to do as many things as I will need to do and best prepare me for the unexpected while making me look like I was born to do the job (and somehow maintain my cool card). As of right now, I'm holding the book that is the odds-on favorite to win this competition.

And that's not to say reading a book is going to prepare me for fatherhood. I'm perfectly aware that nothing will prepare me, least of all a book. But I feel a little less not-ready now. And that, at this point, is comfort enough. So please, parents out there, don't give me a hard time about how a book isn't going to do much good when the shit hits the fan. I know. And I'm ready to not be ready.


Be Prepared: A Practical Handbook for New Dads is exactly the sort of book I was looking for. It offers easily digestible material about a wide range of issues ranging from the day of birth through to the baby's first birthday. It covers the standard questions such as "How do I change a diaper?' and "How do you baby-proof a room?" to the more complicated issues such as "How to insert a rectal thermometer without traumatizing the child?" and "How do I best handle a slippery wet baby?" (with a clean sock). It's the sort of book that answers the questions you have and the questions you didn't even know you were supposed to ask. Reassuring, to say the least.

Aside from the obvious stuff, there seems to be an expert level involved in fatherhood and this book covers some pretty cool territory in that respect. Greenberg and Hayden offer all sorts of fathering gold such as constructing emergency diapers, creating a decoy drawer with old electronics for the toddler to "destroy." and how to stay awake at work after your twelfth sleepless night in a row. There is also a great section on traveling with a baby (camping and how to survive long-haul flights), which I am certain will come in very handy over the next couple of years. While I'm certain there are things this book is not covering, from my perspective, it's as comprehensive as Britannica.

And it's funny. From what I have been perusing, other books about child-rearing oscillate between panic and irreverence. My wife seems to favor the former while I tend to frequent the latter. The only problem with humor is that it often gets in the way of actual advice, which is why I'm reading the book in the first place. Be Prepared seems to know when to remain deadly serious, when to yuck it up and when you can blend the two. For instance, this sage piece of advice concerning dining in restaurants with small children:

When going out to a restaurant with your small fry, keep your expectations low. Don't expect to enjoy your meal. Don't expect to converse with your partner. And don't expect your fellow diners to be anything but irritated by your presence. And if by chance your baby is angelic, count your blessings and wolf down your meal as quickly as possible.


And then there are the pictures. Jeannie Hayden's style is evocative of the bygone dad of yore. The 1950s/1960s Ward Cleaver figure with pants cinched up to the solar plexus, pipes firmly clenched in their square jaws and perfectly parted hair. There are lumberjackets and Stetson hats and enough Aqua Velva to drown Mary Tyler Moore. One gets a sense of timeless comfort from the images. Each image is a sort of Superdad with a steady hand, a firm grasp of all situations and a quick sitcom-ending lesson to impart on wrong-doers at every corner. I like that. It's comforting to think I'm taking fathering advice from Alan Thicke.

This isn't to say this book is perfect. I would have liked to have had a chapter or two concerning the father's role in the weeks prior to birth as well as some lessons on protocol and etiquette concerning the announcement but these are minor complains. As it stands, this book is taking it's place on my end table until such time as a better book unseats it. Given the sheer volume of solid advice, I suspect it would take nothing less than Alan Thicke's Guide to Fatherhood (God, I hope that actually exists) to remove this book from its place.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

True Grit

True Grit 
By Charles Portis

Oh, Charles Portis... Where have you been all my life?

But first, this...

My wife refuses to go to the movies with me. That's fine because I'm never keen to go. I hate movies. I have a festering disdain for Hollywood nonsense such as Transformers, The Hulk, movies whose titles end in a number or anything starring Leonardo DiCaprio. I tend to ruin movies for people sitting around me. At particular points in the movie I will lean over to my wife and calmly note what I suspect will happen next. Invariably, it does. Or, more frustratingly, I'll lean in and say a variation on the line that is about to be delivered. I can only imagine how infuriating it must be to sit next to me.

I'm not telepathic or anything. My ability to anticipate the plot and dialogue of a movie stems from the complete lack of creativity among today's mainstream filmmakers. It's not that hard to figure out what's going to happen next. It's this formulaic drivel that forces me to behave badly in the darkened theater. My wife says I read too much and called me a snob. I'm comfortable with this if it means I have to go to the theater less.

I hate movies, but not film. (Yes, there is a difference. No, I'm not explaining it. If you don't know the difference, I'm not holding your hand). I've always liked film. While I wouldn't go so far as to say that I am a cinephile like Michael Bolton, I do like to sit down to a good Scorsese flick or get all nerdy about an upcoming Coen Brothers release or rant and rave about particular Oscar nominations and omissions.

I love a good many genre of films. I especially like films made in the 1970s. There's something gritty and grainy about that era of film. And the actors and actresses working at the time have proven to be the best generation of acting in the history of film (editor's opinion). Some of my favorites from the decade include Dog Day Afternoon, The Last Picture Show, Annie Hall, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and The Graduate. It was truly a special time for film.

What I enjoy about those films is that the writers of that generation had a knack for dialogue. With the advent of special effects and the blow-em-all-up endings, writers seem to have been reduced to writing snappy one-liners and witty comebacks in lieu of real discourse. It's been a real blow to the film industry that has been going on since the day Star Wars premiered (I love the original Star Wars movies but I cannot deny their role in the infantilization of film and the demise of dialogue). I partially blame George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, but it really has more to do with the Ray Bradbury-esque dumbing-down of the movie-going public, people would rather heard fart jokes than real witty banter. This is a trend that depresses me every other day.

What does this have to do with Charles Portis, you might ask...

OK, I'll get on with it.

Dialogue is what drew me to the films of the 1970s and what draws me to a lot of books. As with film, I am a sucker for novels with good dialogue. It's not the only thing that draws me to a book, but it's a big one. Dialogue can make (Lush Life, Barney's Version) or break (The Da Vinci Code) a novel. In terms of dialogue, the work of Elmore Leonard, Mordecai Richler and Richard Price are especially dear to me. And as of right now, I'd have to add Charles Portis.

As a reader and a fan of old films, it might come as a surprise that I've never read True Grit. True be told, I, like so many, had no idea that it was a novel before it became a John Wayne classic. I only recently discovered that the story was not only a best-selling novel but also considered a prime example of classic modern American literature (if that makes sense).

For those who are unaware (aka too young to know), True Grit is the post-Civil War era story of Mattie Ross's resolute drive to exact revenge for the murder of her father at the hands of Tom Chaney. She employs the services of the shifty, oft-drunk federal marshal, Rooster Cogburn to hunt Chaney down in the wild territory known at the time as the Choctaw Nation (modern day Oklahoma). Another lawman, a Texas Ranger by the name of LaBoeuf needles himself into the manhunt as well. The motley threesome set off on a wild search for Chaney and his band of outlaws. It is a classic western.

I've seen the recent Coen Brothers remake of the film starring Jeff Bridges, but I didn't think that counted in comparison to the original film (loved it though). As it turns out, the Coen Brothers movie is decidedly faithful to the novel. But that's alright. I was glad to break my never reading a book after seeing the movie rule for this one. Had I adhered to my usual rule, I'd have missed out on some of the best dialogue ever written.

Charles Portis has a knack for characterization via dialogue. Mattie Ross as narrator in the novel is light on characterization, putting emphasis on what, exactly happened. But it is through the dialogue that each character develops, a skill that only the best writers are capable of doing. The precocious, right-minded protestantism of Mattie Ross. Rooster Cogburn's hard drinking cynicism and LeBeouf's morality all manifest themselves through Portis's dialogue.

And here's the best part: If you haven't read this novel and you like dialogue as much as I do, you'll be interested to know that almost the entire novel is written in dialogue. The book is told from the perspective of Mattie Ross who, like I mentioned above, isn't long on characterization as a narrator, but excellent at recalling events and conversations. And that is exactly how she recounts the story, through short bursts of narration followed by extensive amounts of dialogue.

I'm happy and sad that I finished this book. I'm happy that I broke my rule about reading the novels after seeing the film. I would have missed out on a true classic. But I'm sad that it took me this long to find and read this book. It felt like the sort of book that might have changed my life as a teenager. I did get a distinct feeling that I missed out on something here if only I had read it a few decades ago.

Oh well, better late than never.

Shout Out

If you have read this far and would rather read something interesting for a change, go check out Bibliomania. Erin reads a lot of books about the brain, which is fascinating to read, even if only in review form.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

What To Expect When Your Wife Is Expanding

What To Expect When Your Wife Is Expanding
By Thomas Hill

Well, I suppose that more than a few titles such as this one will appear on my blog over the coming months for reasons that should be implied. I'll try to keep nervous father-to-be angst off the blog as best I can, but since I vowed to write something about everything I read, I am forced by my own dogmatism to write about them. Please bear with me.

Actually, I should take this moment to plug my side-blog: Birthing the Dragon. I started another blog that will chronicle my wife and my experiences of (cross-cultural) pregnancy and birth in Taiwan, one of the world's most superstition nations (and, yes... out child will be a Dragon, though we didn't plan that nor does it mean anything to us). Most of the blog content will be relating then furrowing my brow at the nonsensical advice doled out by old (and not so old) Taiwanese women about how pregnancy and babies. Should be enlightening.

Anyway, back to the book at hand. I suppose that it was smart of me to start with a parody. A nice, short, light-hearted little booklet for new fathers. While most of the advice is silly and irreverent ("What to Name Your Baby If You Are Not Serious About Naming A Baby," "What To Take To The Hospital For Myself," "What Your Wife Will Be Complaining About This Month") some of the advice is quite useful (although you often have to dig through layers of sarcasm and dimwittedness to get there).

Despite the light-hearted approach to a serious subject, I'm not going to get on this book's case. It is what it is. It's a fun little book you might would in the humor section of the bookstore. It's the sort of gag gift you buy for a guy whose wife is expecting their first child (me) but wouldn't necessarily buy for yourself. And since it was given to me by a very good friend in exactly that sort of vein, I'm happy with it. A solid morning's read.

I'm not going to give this book a whole lot of space for obvious reasons. I have more serious books on the subject piling up around the house that will get closer attention. But if I took one lesson away from this book it is this:

If our baby is a girl, her name will not be Bertrude.

Shout Out!

Unless you live under a rock, you've been to visit Sheila over at Book Journey. She is a book blog hub and a wonderful blogger with lots of fun stuff going on. Always deserving of an extra visit.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Seven Days at the Silbersteins

Seven Days at the Silbersteins
By Etienne Leroux

Living in a non-English speaking country is a challenge for a reader. For me, books are often hard to come by and while it's not impossible to get them (there are bookstores in Taipei, three hours by train and Amazon does ship to Taiwan), it can be feast or famine at times. while my Kindle has eased some of the worst famines, I'm certainly not living in a place of unlimited access to books.

Despite the challenge inherent to a reader in Taiwan, there is an interesting side-advantage that I never considered but turns out to be true. Living in a medium-sized city with a small population of English speakers from all over the world has provided me with the chance to read a wide assortment of English literature from countries I would otherwise have ignored (unwittingly, of course). If I still lived in Canada I would be inundated with Canadian and American literature with a smattering of English novels to fill the gaps. Aside from the odd worldwide curiosity, I would hardly get exposed to the depths of Australian literature, or New Zealander, or South African.

As it turns out, I've had the opportunity to read a lot of interesting books from around the world due to the fact that I live in an international expatriate community and Seven Days at the Silbersteins is a prime example of a book I would have never read otherwise.

Seven Days at the Silbersteins is a classic South African novel by Etienne Leroux. Originally published in Afrikaans in 1962, Seven Day at the Silbersteins is a classic in it's original language. I'm not sure if this book is widely available outside Sotuth Africa. This particular English translation was done by Charles Eglington. Needless to say, I imagine this book would be difficult to find in a North American bookstore. Despite such obscurity, Seven Days at the Silbersteins won the Herzog Prize, the highest award in Afrikaans literature.

On the surface it is the story of Henry Van Eeden, a young, well-educated South African who is escorted to the vast Silberstein estate by his uncle, J.J. in order to meet Salome, the young girl he is betrothed to marry. Henry spends seven days at the Silberstein's winery and cattle ranch (called Weldevonden) meeting the family (of which the enigmatic Jock reigns supreme), attending parties populated by eccentric gentry and farmers and, mysteriously enough, not meeting Salome. She is in attendance at all the functions, but Henry remains uncertain as to which guest is his fiancee until the very end. The surface story is the literary equivalent of a Three's Company episode.

But this novel cannot be read on a surface level. Leroux's prose is dense with philosophical and social implications. Written as a time of social awakening in South Africa, the text is a bizarre trip that examines the nature of good versus evil, the essence of salvation, the formlessness of being and the divine among a plethora of other themes. At another level, Seven Days at the Silbersteins is a literary awakening of the Afrikaans voice at a time when South Africa was itself awakening from several decades of crippling apartheid to find themselves increasingly the pariah on the world stage. I get the impression that this novel and its highly liberal ideas when a long way toward softening the Afrikaans stance on race relations in South Africa, but I could be wrong.

The prose is so dense that it takes a linguistic machete to hack through its layers. One of the central themes of the book is the notion of reality vs. illusion and the book often diverges into bizarre twists and turns that are sometimes difficult to understand. Leroux is concerned with the the notion of masks and hidden realities and this not only comes out in the surface narrative but also on various philosophical levels. This obsession with illusion and reality is perfectly manifest in the ongoing interplay between the very real Henry and the illusory Salome, whose presence is entirely definite, but at the same time, entirely indefinite.

While the novel itself is short (only 157 pages) the writing is so dense and layered that it should be read slowly in order to really chew the philosophical fat. Each chapter represents a particular day and each chapter descends deeper into a world where very little is certain and everything seems possible. But don't get me wrong, aside from the deeper themes of the novel Seven Days at the Silbersteins is very much a piece of humor. Watching Henry stumble and bumble about his future in-laws estate, being continuously misunderstood and misinterpreted (often to his advantage) is a lesson in good comedic writing. The pacing is as it should be. Quick on story and long on thought.

If you are into philosophical comedy and/or Afrikaans literature (and I know you are!), this is as good a place to start.

Shout Out

Despite the fact that she has really culled back her posting recently (boo!), I really dig what Erin has to say over at Erin Reads. Excellent blog. Check her out!

Friday, May 4, 2012

A Piano in the Pyrenees

A Piano in the Pyrenees
By Tony Hawks

Feeling a little low today. I don't much get affected by celebrity death but the recent passing of Levon Helm and, then, Adam Yauch today. Feel like a sizable portion of my childhood and adulthood have been robbed of me.

Anyway, this blog isn't about music. It's about books, so I'll man up and get on with it.

I like everything about Tony Hawks. Call him a literary guilty pleasure (if such a thing exists). I like his brand of dry British wit. I like the fact that I could probably sit next to him at a pub, have a beer with him and feel like I've known him my entire life. I like the fact that he saves, and often replies to, emails sent to him by mistake by people who think he is skateboarding icon, Tony Hawk, singular. And I especially like his books. Call it a guilty pleasure if you must, but I love his sort of manly (but not quite juvenile) humor.

I first discovered Hawks via a friend, whose non-book blog can be found here. I was drawn by the way in which he find adventure from the most mundane of places: the local pub. For those not in the know, Tony Hawks is an interesting guy. From what I'm lead to understand, Hawks, like so many British men, spends a lot of time in the pub with his buddies. He's not an alcoholic, but he seems to like his ale. And his buddies. After a few pints, things tend to get competitive with his buddies and outlandish bets are made. But unlike your standard, run-of-the-mill "I bet you won't go hit on that chick at the bar" sort of stuff, Hawks and his pals take it a bit farther and Hawks has forged a career as a niche travel writer as a result.

The first of these bets was a bizarre dare that escalated into something sublime. Hawks's bet that he could hitchhike around the island of Ireland with a fairly large fridge in tow. The subsequent book that followed the completion of the adventure was aptly titled: Around Ireland With a Fridge. His second book, One Hit Wonderland, follows Hawks as he attempts to produce a number one hit somewhere (anywhere) in the world. Hilarity also ensues. My favorite Hawks book is Playing the Moldovans at Tennis, an absurd adventure that find Hawks trying to track down and beat each member of the Moldovan national soccer team in a game of tennis. As you can see, Tony Hawks is indeed an interesting guy.

What each of these books had going for them was an interesting central premise. A gimmick of sorts that provides structure and form around Hawks's cheeky wit. The gimmick is strong enough to pull the reader in and Hawks's humor and style is strong enough to carry the gimmick when it gets stale. It is a wonderful symbiotic writing style and the cornerstone to Tony Hawks's success as a writer (as far as I was concerned, that is). With all due respect to evolution as a writer, why mess with success, right?

Well he went ahead and did just that.

And that's what troubled me so much about A Piano in the Pyrenees (not his latest, mind you, but the latest of his that I have read). It has loads of charm and humor of the Tony Hawks variety and i still enjoyed his humility and self-deprecation in dealing with living in a foreign country (something I can identify with) and struggling with a language barrier (ditto). But  the fundamental problem is that A Piano in the Pyrenees lacks the gimmick that made his previous books so irresistible. I know a lot of people liked this book, and I really wanted to as well. But I didn't. I went into this book expecting what I have come to expect from Tony Hawks, so perhaps it's my fault. Perhaps I have not allowed Hawks to mature and evolve as a travel writer, but I just couldn't get on board with this one.

As far as I can tell, the book is about buying a house in the French Pyrenees on impulse (the first and one one he sees), deciding to move his piano there so that he can finally master it, his adventures in moving from London to France, getting talked into buying and self-installing a swimming pool and his culturally hilarious antics in trying to ingratiate himself with the locals. He also complains a lot about being single in his early 40s. That's it. No bet, no gimmick, no slightly juvenile behavior. It all seemed so mature and grown up. I felt lost with Tony sans gimmick. What are doing here together, Tony? Are we going to get up to no good or are we just going to sit in your living room staring out at the mountains while we discuss the hilarious differences between the French and the English? Cause if there's no fun gimmick, do you mind if I just head off to bed? Maybe we can get up to no good tomorrow.

Aside from the lack of gimmick, this book failed to grab me for a couple of other reasons. First, what I enjoyed about his previous books was that Hawks attempts to win the sorts of bets we might make (but really, actually don't make) with your friends. There was a blue-class hilarity manifest in the narrative that spoke to everyman. I could hitchhike around Ireland with a fridge if I wanted. Sure, it would require a plane ticket to Dublin, but not much else and I'd have a ball doing it. And if I don't I can fantasize about what sorts of nonsense I'd get up to if I did. His adventures always dwelt in the realm of possibility for everyone. Not so with A Piano in the Pyrenees.

While I don't want to speak for everyman, I can't imagine many of Hawks's usual readers are in a position to simply buy a house in the French Pyrenees on impulse, never mind a swimming pool and all those flights back and forth to London. It's sort of like Pink Floyd expecting their fans to understand their struggles with fame and fortune on their 1979 album The Wall. Sure, the album is decent enough but it always seems to reek of self-indulgence and naval-gazing. It's difficult to empathize with Hawks's trials and tribulations when the costs mount into the thousands and tens of thousands of dollars.

Which leads me to the second reason I didn't wholly fall in love with this book. It seemed to lack a conclusion. The swimming pool never does get finished, he never really gets around to practicing the piano and his quest for love is never resolved. Now, I know that this is non-fiction and you can't force your life to wrap itself up into neat little conclusions, but these narratives looked to be well on their way to some sort of resolution when the book abruptly ends.

This book seems to have been hastily written. It is an uneven, ramshackle piece of work that meanders in all sorts of directions (again, without a gimmick Hawks is a boat lost in the night). I'm not Tony Hawks's economic advisor and I don't pretend to have any insight into his personal finances nor am I trying to point a shameful finger (we all gonna do what we all gonna do) but I got the distinct impression that this book was rushed along for financial reasons.

Swimming pools don't build themselves, you know.

Shout Out

I'm always quick to check out what Jonathan is reading over at I Read A Book Once. I dig the fact that his goal is to get blurbed on the back of someone's book and he might just like zombies as much as me. That's reason enough!